Worldview: The upsides of Petraeus' becoming head of CIA

CIA Director-nominee Gen. David Petraeus (right) looks on as President Obama announces changes to his national-security team Thursday at the White House.
CIA Director-nominee Gen. David Petraeus (right) looks on as President Obama announces changes to his national-security team Thursday at the White House. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: May 01, 2011

When the first rumors surfaced weeks ago that Gen. David Petraeus would be named to head the Central Intelligence Agency, I thought it was a strange idea.

My gut reaction: Why would you move our top general out of command in Afghanistan at such a critical point, with a U.S. troop drawdown starting in July, and all combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn by 2014?

And if you were going to shift him, why not make him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking U.S. military post, from which Adm. Mike Mullen is retiring this fall?

But now that the official announcement has been made - along with the appointments of retired diplomat Ryan Crocker as ambassador to Afghanistan, and Lt. Gen. John Allen as Petraeus' replacement - I see an upside.

This new security team has exceptional qualifications for helping President Obama as he navigates the dangerous, difficult three-year transition period of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. And Petraeus can still play a crucial role as this drama unfolds.

It would have been great had Petraeus stayed on through the transition, but it was probably time for him to leave, given his almost continuous wartime commands over the last eight years.

I still think the administration made a mistake in not appointing him to replace Mullen, which would have kept him directly involved in overall strategy for AfPak. As the American Enterprise Institute's Arthur Herman aptly put it, this is like pulling Ulysses S. Grant away from Richmond to run the Pinkerton Agency.

Moreover, Petraeus' grasp of strategy would have been an immense asset in dealing with the enormous security challenges facing the country - from Mideast upheavals to China's rise. (He also could have helped Leon Panetta, Obama's pick for the next secretary of defense, in making painful military budget cuts.)

Conventional wisdom says the White House regarded Petraeus as too charismatic and ambitious, and not enough of a team player. That seems a pale excuse for passing over Petraeus' vast experience and intellectual talents. It also flies in the face of Obama's earlier insistence on a smart team of rivals that would knock heads until they reached consensus.

"To the extent that people were somehow worried that he was not a team player, that was mistaken," says the Brookings Institution's security analyst Michael O'Hanlon.

Yet clearly, some on the Obama team were nervous about a Petraeus on the loose (despite his repeated and genuine denials that he seeks high political office). And thus, we have his appointment to the Obama cabinet as director of the CIA.

What makes this choice intriguing, however, is that it puts Petraeus in charge of an agency whose work has become more and more essential to the AfPak theater. The CIA controls the armed-drone campaign that targets Taliban leaders inside their Pakistani havens. Unless Pakistan shuts those havens down - a U.S. demand it ignores - the drone campaign is likely to become even more central as U.S. combat troops withdraw.

With his long combat career and many commands, Petraeus has been an insatiable consumer of intelligence, and is wholly familiar with CIA efforts in the AfPak theater. This puts him in an excellent position to expand those efforts - if the Pakistanis stonewall. Indeed, his appointment comes just after Mullen publicly chastised Pakistan for failing to go after those militants. This open critique by the mild-mannered Mullen was meant to convey that American patience was cracking.

The appointment of Petraeus, whom Pakistanis consider more of a hard-liner, is a further sign that the American relationship with Pakistan has reached a crossroads and Pakistanis must finally choose whether they want the United States as an ally.

Petraeus will also be taking control of the agency at a time when it is essential to get much better intelligence on whether there are prospects for splintering the Afghan Taliban leadership and making political deals.

Some have argued that Petraeus will have trouble offering objective intelligence advice to Obama on Afghanistan because it might conflict with these views he offered when he was commander. The CIA has been consistently more pessimistic than he about Afghan prospects, and has been skeptical that his counterinsurgency theory would work.

I think this critique is too shortsighted. Petraeus has a vested interest in achieving acceptable success in Afghanistan, and no one is more aware than he that the 2014 drawdown date looms. Short of becoming Joint Chiefs chairman, the CIA post gives him the best chance to affect the Afghan outcome: prodding the Pakistanis, and digging deeper into the prospects for a negotiated peace.

In this task, Crocker and Allen will be great assets, the former with his prodigious diplomatic skills, the latter with his experience in dealing with tribal leaders, however different, in Iraq. And my guess is that if Obama makes use of his talents, Petraeus will be a team player who offers frank truths about the AfPak options ahead.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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