Commentary — May 3, 2011, 10:41 am

Petraeus: Kicked Upstairs or Simply Unleashed?

In my article “Owned by the Army” in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine, I contend that in publicly second-guessing President Obama’s Afghanistan policy, and overselling American counterinsurgency success there, General David Petraeus has impinged on the president’s strategic authority. At first blush, Obama’s nomination of Petraeus to become director of the CIA looked like an agreeably Machiavellian solution to this problem. Given Petraeus’s outsize prestige and the fact that Obama had already removed two generals from command in Afghanistan (McKiernan and McChrystal), Petraeus was not fire-able from a political standpoint. But getting Petraeus out of Afghanistan by kicking him upstairs gives Obama more flexibility in Afghanistan without damaging his relations with the Pentagon. The president might be clearing the way for a needed adjustment of the Afghanistan policy more in line with Vice President Joe Biden’s sensible “counterterrorism plus” prescription, whereby troops on the ground are kept to a minimum and Al Qaeda is suppressed by surgical counterterrorism operations much like the one that killed Osama bin Laden earlier this week. Certainly U.S. Marine Corps General John R. Allen, Obama’s choice as Petraeus’s replacement, supports such an interpretation: he is highly competent but not flamboyant, unlikely to grandstand for political effect and more apt to adhere closely—in public as well as in the field—to what the president has established as policy.

But it might not be that simple. As CIA director, Petraeus will control an agency that has become more militarized since 9/11. In particular, CIA officers are the trigger-pullers in the drone war against Pakistan-based jihadists, and intelligence operatives apparently accompanied the Navy SEAL team that took down bin Laden. Petraeus’s testy relationship with the Pakistani military could make it diplomatically harder to sustain the drone strikes, and, therefore, perhaps harder to implement “counterterrorism plus.” The more general worry is that Petraeus would use the considerable force of his personality to impose his military disposition on the agency, marginalizing analysis in favor of operations and looking askew at intelligence assessments that didn’t jibe with his own instincts and biases. Sadly, this would continue rather than buck the trend of politicizing intelligence that began during the Bush administration, when both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld started their own intelligence channels to counter CIA views that displeased them, and CIA director George Tenet catered to the president’s own wishful thinking, sometimes disregarding CIA analysts’ reports.

I remain inclined to think, optimistically, that Obama has made the right move. The CIA is a far less hierarchical and deferential organization than the Army, and Petraeus is likely to find himself constrained in what he can do unilaterally. Most of the five military officers preceding Petraeus who have become CIA directors—Admiral Stansfield Turner comes particularly to mind—did not fare well because they failed to acclimate to the agency’s culture. Because they operate behind the scenes, CIA directors do not enjoy the public esteem or celebrity that gives field commanders the kind of political leverage that Petraeus has enjoyed. He will find himself among professional intelligence analysts who have developed a distinctly—and defensibly—pessimistic view of the prospects for successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. The general may be imperious, but he is also a pragmatist whose overriding priority is to maintain influence on policy—to stay in the game. As I suggest in my article, he has imposed his will on Afghanistan policy based on his “very keen sense of what the market for military assertiveness will bear.” The market for assertiveness on the part of intelligence professionals is decidedly less robust.

Furthermore, Petraeus’s appointment comes at a time when Obama appears to be seizing on the Arab Spring to tilt his foreign policy more towards liberal idealism, reclaiming firm presidential control over U.S. security policy in the process. Against this backdrop, when faced with a choice between marginalization and deference, Petraeus will probably choose the latter. His intelligence and competence are not in question. The hope is that he will become an energetic CIA director, but one who discreetly informs strategy in private and follows the president’s lead in public.

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More from Jonathan Stevenson:

From the May 2011 issue

Owned by the Army

Has the president lost control of his generals?

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