Obama’s Next Cabinet

Via Steve Clemmons at The Washington Note, The New York Times has a story on who will be tapped to be the next Secretary of Defense.  And the winner is?  Mr. Leon Panetta!  Panetta is currently the director of the CIA, and according to the Times article, it is expected that Obama will soon announce Panetta's move to the Pentagon upon the exit of Bob Gates.  

Of course this move opens up Panetta's post at the CIA, and apparently some low-level no-name general named David Petraeus is expected to move on in to that post with Panetta's move to the DOD.  Personally, I think this is the more interesting side of the story.  It's not new for a military leader to be put into the top spot at the CIA–Panetta's own predecessor Michael Hayden was an Air Force General, and the Agency's first four directors were all high ranking military officers.  The most famous among them probably being Hoyt Vandenberg and Walter Bedell Smith.  But I suppose the question here is what is it that Obama is hoping to get out of Petraeus' appointment to the CIA?

Petraeus is arguably one of the most versatile and effective generals that the United States currently has.  That said, this is far from a guarantee that he will be an effective administrator in the CIA, which is notorious for being incredibly resistent to change.  Furthermore, the Agency's reputation has been pretty beat up since 9/11, so its moral is bound to be pretty low.  This problem has been accentuated by the fact that many Agency directors often have very poor relations with the White House.  Basically, there's a lot to do.  Although I do think there's reason to believe that Petraeus will have a significantly stronger relationship with Obama than many directors have had with their respective presidents.  

But at the moment I think the strongest connection that Petraeus has with the CIA currently is the use of drones to attack insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  At first glance this may sound like a cozy relationship–Petraeus has certainly had contact with CIA officers working in the area, and those responsible for operating the drones in the area.  But I'm skeptical at just how in sync Petraeus' preferences would be as the Agency's leader with those career officials in the Agency itself.  Some authors have argued that the CIA has, throughout its history, pretty firmly embraced the sexier tasks of covert operations as opposed to intelligence gathering.  Currently this has manifested itself in the form of the CIA's stewardship of the drone programs.  

Alternatively, Petreaus' approach to Iraq and Afghanistan has placed a significant emphasis on the human element of the operations–he's been pretty active in integrating military and political operations and taking a more robust approach to warfighting.  If he appoaches his job with this same sort of emphasis on robustness while at the CIA, then I wonder just how much resistance he'll run into should he try to beef up the intelligence gathering and analysis areas of the CIA's operations.

Basically, there's a distinct possibility that Petraeus will be a bad Director of Central Intelligence–however great a general he may be.  And this is not necessarily any fault of Petraeus'–as I mentioned above, the CIA has a reputation for being particularly difficult for its bosses to deal with.  Furthermore, replacing Stanley McChrystal with Petraeus may have been a brilliant political move that offered Obama some cover from critics, but playing the Petraeus card can only work so often.  I'm not convinced that letting him be for the time being wouldn't be a better bet.  Some day he might make a great Secretary of Defense, but until he's eligible he might just be of greater use in the field.  But maybe there are some political points to be had by bringing him closer to the administration?  

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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