Leon Panetta was the sensible choice for an administration that is both risk-averse in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and seeks what may be controversial cuts to the defense budget even as the cost of the Libyan operation remains uncertain. Panetta is a team player who has managed to win the confidence of the CIA while simultaneously working closely with the Defense Department and maintaining good relations with all sides on the Hill. He has just presided over the agency's most visible triumph in years—the killing of Osama bin Laden. From all indications, the CIA and the DoD worked in tandem for months planning the attack.
Panetta's appointment also foreshadows the likelihood that, at least in the short term, the cuts to what has until now been termed "the security budget"—which includes not only DoD’s budget but also State’s (plus the Agency for International Development), along with the intelligence budget, the homeland security budget, and a portion of the Department of Energy's budget—will in fact overwhelmingly come from the defense program. Panetta was an effective director of the Office of Management and Budget, and he can be expected to carry out the White House's budget reduction plans to the letter.
John Allen's appointment as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan also makes good sense. He is as brilliant as is he low-key: a strategic thinker who displayed his operational and diplomatic skills helping to mastermind the "Sunni Awakening" in Anbar province. He has been serving as deputy commander of the Central Command—under both General Petraeus and, more recently, fellow Marine General Jim Mattis—and is therefore intimately familiar with the challenge that the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan poses for the Administration's planned withdrawal, which actually will begin before Allen assumes his new command. Once he takes charge, Allen can be relied upon to offer reasoned judgments regarding the pace and scale of the ongoing withdrawal of American and allied forces in Afghanistan over the next few years.
The wild card in the administration's ongoing shuffle of the national security leadership is the appointment of David Petraeus to the CIA directorship. The issue is not that he is a general; so was Mike Hayden, Panetta's predecessor at the agency, who was well liked and respected by the intelligence professionals. Rather it is that Petraeus will find that he has his hands full with prickly partners like Pakistan—which has not been shy about signaling its displeasure at his appointment—and thereby helped smooth his confirmation in a Congress that has never felt comfortable about working with Islamabad.
Petraeus will also find himself enmeshed in the ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, which caught all intelligence agencies by surprise, and which is far from subsiding. His experience in Iraq may or may not help him in this regard. Iraq's people did not overthrow their corrupt and despotic leader; it was the United States that brought about a change in the regime. On the other hand, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were internally generated, as are the ongoing attempts to oust the leaders of Syria and Yemen in particular. Petraeus will be confronting a very different Middle East from the one he dealt with only two years ago.
A further complicating factor will be managing the agency's relationship with Israel, never an easy task. If confirmed, Petraeus will assume his new post just after the attempt will have been made in the United Nations General Assembly to recognize an independent Palestinian State. The outcome of a vote in the General Assembly, if indeed there is a vote, could exacerbate Washington's already difficult political relationship with Israel; Petraeus' task will be to ensure that there be no spillover into the intelligence sphere.
Yet there is still some residual unease in Israeli political circles with the American military hero. Petraeus is not known to have had much interaction with the Israelis, whether in Iraq, where he served multiple tours of duty, at Central Command, where his "area of responsibility" included much of the Arab world but not Israel, or in Afghanistan. He created a stir with his written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2010 that " the enduring hostilities between
Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our [that is, CENTCOM's] ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]...The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel." While it is arguable that nothing Petraeus said was particularly new to anyone even marginally familiar with the region, for some Israelis, even the slightest intimation that Israel is anything less than a strategic asset to the United States is enough to set off alarm bells in Jerusalem. The general will have his work cut out for him; he will be watched very carefully not only by Israeli policy makers, but also by many of Israel's supporters in Washington.
Beyond the Middle East and Central Asia, Petraeus will have to lead his agency's efforts to cope with challenges posed by China, Russia, Venezuela and many other places besides. He will also have to win the confidence of an agency that has a reputation for resisting attempts by incoming directors to change its culture in any way. Panetta, the politician, seems to have successfully won over the loyalty of his personnel; whether Petraeus, the general, can do the same is, of course, unknown.
The decision to appoint Petraeus no doubt was made as much with an eye to the 2012 elections as was that of Panetta. The latter could be relied upon to do all in his power to avoid making defense an election issue. In the case of Petraeus, it could not have escaped the President's political advisors that naming him to the CIA would ensure that he could not run as the twenty-first century Republican incarnation of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet the White House chose not to nominate him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was a more natural progression for a career military officer. Why that decision was made, why Petraeus was instead asked to lead the CIA, is an intriguing question that has yet to be answered.