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The New, Improved War Cabinet

April 10th, 2011 - 8:50 pm

The president is going to have to make some policy decisions pretty soon.  About foreign and national security policy.  They will take the form of personnel changes at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense, but since personnel=policy, the new (or reshuffled) lineup will perhaps tell us if Mr. Obama has actually learned anything about the way the world works and America’s role in it.

Since his public statements can be used to prove most anything you wish — he’s been on virtually all sides of many crucial issues — the personnel moves will likely be enlightening, or at least helpful to those trying to figure him out.

Gates is retiring “soon,” sometime “this summer.”  So that’s one open slot.  And Mullen, the current chairman of the JCS is term-limited and must leave in September.  So that makes two.  If you believe the Washington insiders, you will bet that Leon Panetta, the current CIA director, will move to the Pentagon, that General David Petraeus, the current commander of the Afghanistan war effort, will replace Panetta in Langley, and that General “Hoss” Cartiright, Mullen’s deputy at the moment, will move up one rung.

The Cartright move is the least likely, in part because there is considerable opposition within the top military ranks.  Moreover, the JCS job is apparently Petraeus’s for the asking.  He’s certainly qualified, and although, Washington being what it is and human nature being what IT is, there are those who are less than unqualified admirers, no one will mount a campaign against him.  As against that, Petraeus doesn’t have a warm cuddly relationship with the president and with Thomas Donilon, the powerful national security adviser, while Cartright apparently does.

Indeed, one of the insiders’ favorite subplots is that Obama fears Petraeus as a political rival, whether within the system or as a Republican presidential candidate next year.  If he were at JCS, the general would have a very visible podium, but if he were at CIA he’d have to be quiet.  So it would make political sense for the president to send Petraeus to Langley and reward his buddy Cartright with the chairman’s seat at JCS.  Furthermore, the loyal Panetta would ensure that the chiefs sing from the Obama hymnal.

If you were Petraeus, what would you do?  I can’t answer that question, since I don’t know if he wants to run for public office.  He’s certainly a very political animal, and a master of public relations.  Does he fancy a run for the White House or some other such job?  If so, he’d be ill-advised to go to the CIA, where Panetta has done a splendid job protecting Obama’s back from the sort of murderous assaults that the spooks unleashed against W.  He hasn’t turned the Agency into a first-class organization, but I don’t think anyone can do that.  You can find folks close to Petraeus who believe that he might make the CIA much better, and that he might take the job because it’s so important for the future of the country.  If true, and if he goes to Langley, I would expect Petraeus to have a very difficult and unpleasant tenure.  Those guys might not know what they’re supposed to about Iran, Syria and Libya, but they know a great deal about Washington, and they have lots of willing co-conspirators in the media.

How would Panetta do at DoD?  He’s very close to Obama — which would give him at least as much leverage over policy as the cautious Gates has had — but he doesn’t seem to be a particularly vigorous policy advocate.  So what would the leverage be used for?  The most likely answer is that it would be used in reverse, in a campaign to cut the defense budget and weaken the services.  Good for Obama, bad for the country, you might say.  But he’s the president, and he’s going to head in that direction, and I would expect him to want “his guy” to manage it.

If Petraeus, acting out of character, says it’s either JCS or he’ll consider his options as a private citizen, Obama might have to find a different CIA director, and he’d likely want someone in the Panetta mold: a loyal pol.  And that’s easy, those people are all over Washington, and lots of them would love to be head of CIA, even in its diminished status under the thumb of the director of national intelligence.

What does all this tell us about policy?  What we knew in the first place:  that there isn’t anything approaching a coherent policy in this administration, and so Obama is likely to look for a War Cabinet whose members will do his bidding, whatever that might be. There’s not a single name on the list that is associated with a definable global vision, even if you expand the list to include the likes of Senator Reed, or General Odierno.  It’s all about himself, about his reelection campaign, and thus about tactical decisions with no strategic goals aside from looking cool.

Yes, they are “talented men.”  They do their jobs well.  But we’re at war and Obama isn’t very comfortable around warriors.  Which is why he seemingly wants Petraeus in internal exile.  I don’t know if he’s right about that, it’s what comes out of this little world inside the Beltway, and most of the time that stuff is wrong.

So we’ll get a bit of change, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get reason for hope that we’re going to take the war seriously.

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