The rumored appointment of Ryan Crocker as U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, which I commented on earlier, is apparently only part of a larger, long-rumored rejiggering of personnel at the highest reaches of the national security bureaucracy. Leon Panetta is leaving his post as CIA director to become secretary of defense. David Petraeus is leaving Afghanistan to become CIA Director. And Marine Lieutenant General John Allen, the deputy commander at Central Command, is replacing Petraeus in Kabul.
What to make of all these shifts? By and large they seem like sensible adjustments, replacing capable leaders with other capable leaders, and they confirm President Obama’s desire to chart a centrist path in national security policy. Crocker’s selection, as I mentioned previously, is particularly welcome news given how much he did to make the surge in Iraq a success. But there are also some obvious risks involved.
Panetta seems to have done well at CIA, and with his long record of government service it is hard to imagine a safer pair of hands to guide the Pentagon. The danger is that he has little background on defense issues but a lot as a green-eye shade type: former head of the House Budget Committee and the Office of Management and Budget. That may well give him a particular bias in the coming debate over whether and how much to slash the defense budget. Gates has warned about the consequences of overly extensive cuts such as those that Obama himself has publicly advocated. Will Panetta fight for the needs and interests of the armed forces in the White House—or will he be the White House’s emissary to force through irresponsible cuts in the defense budget that will endanger our global position? As CIA Director, he did gain a reputation as the agency’s champion. That’s a good sign, but it’s too soon to know how he will view his new post at the Pentagon. This should be an obvious issue for senators to grill him on during his confirmation hearings.
As for the other shifts: Petraeus’s leaving Kabul is a shame on multiple levels, because it is hard to imagine a better-qualified commander and because with his departure there will not be a chance to reunite the Crocker/Petraeus “dream team” that worked so effectively in Iraq. But Petraeus has spent much of the past decade deployed in war zones, and he made it clear that he was ready to leave Afghanistan after this summer’s fighting season. He has certainly earned the right to come home.
From President Obama’s perspective, putting Petraeus at CIA is a smart move, because it removes him from the political debate and forecloses the possibility (never a serious possibility, I think, but one that worried the Democratic Party brass) of Petraeus’s challenging Obama in the 2012 elections. Directing CIA is an important job, but not the job he deserved and had earned—that of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Presumably Obama must have been concerned about appointing such a high-profile general to a post where he could, if he chose, have become an impediment to the White House’s agenda. That is a shame, because the chairman’s job needs to be filled by a strong and independent leader who will give unvarnished military advice—not the “yes men” who have too often been appointed in the past.
From Petraeus’s perspective, it is hard to see any careerist advantage to becoming CIA Director, just as there was no careerist advantage last year in leaving Centcom to take over a subordinate command in Afghanistan. (Similarily there is no careerist reason for Ryan Crocker to come out of retirement for yet another ambassadorial posting.) The only way to interpret his willingness to perform such work is that he is a patriot who goes where the commander-in-chief summons him. His willingness to serve, and the skill with which he has performed numerous top-level jobs, should make him a strong contender for secretary of state after Hillary Clinton steps down. If he were to be appointed to that job, he would be following in the footsteps of his hero, George Marshall.
As for his successor as the top US/NATO commander in Kabul—John Allen—I have met him only once but have heard many good things about him. Allen is widely credited as one of the major forces behind the Sunni Awakening in Anbar Province, which occurred while he was deputy commander of Multi-National Forces-West. He also served at Centcom as deputy to both Petraeus and his successor, Jim Mattis. He has seen how two of the brightest four-stars in the armed forces operate, and he has presumably gained a fair degree of familiarity with Afghanistan and its neighbors, which are part of the Centcom Area of Operations.
His strategic instincts and management skills are said to be impressive. His challenge, after serving as a deputy, will be to step into the klieg lights as the top commander in a job where political, diplomatic, and communications skills are at least as important as the traditional military competencies. This was a transition that Stanley McChrystal, a superb Special Operations commander, had trouble making. The challenge for Allen will be to step into some very big shoes because he will replace the most successful and respected American general since the World War II generation retired. But he has been groomed for this post, and there is every reason to expect that he will do a good job.
Overall, there is not much reason for complaint in this national-security reshuffle. But—a final point—leadership starts at the top. No team, matter how impressive, can achieve good results if the president is unsure of what direction he wants to follow. Unfortunately the past two years have shown—and Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on the “leading from behind” president has confirmed—that too often Obama has been uncertain of his path. We can only hope that he shows himself to be a stronger and more self-confident leader in national security affairs than he did in the early part of his administration.