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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.
More from Jonathan Stevenson:
Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.
The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.
Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:
An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”