The Duck of Minerva

A puzzle in promotion: Petraeus at the CIA

27 April 2011

This is a guest blog by Jarrod Hayes, who is is an assistant professor of International Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research broadly focuses on the social construction of foreign and security policy.

The New York Times is reporting that President Obama plans on moving Leon Panetta to the position of Secretary of Defense and David Petraeus to the position of CIA director. While the Panetta move is interesting in its own right (i.e., will Panetta have the force of will necessary to manage the DoD?), what I find far more interesting is the move of General David Petraeus to the CIA, a man whose credentials for leading the CIA at best require some creative argumentation. I find the move puzzling (hence the title) and would like to forward a possible explanation for the move as well a negative repercussion that could result. First, the explanation. In June 2010, when Obama fired then U.S. commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal after insubordinate remarks by officers under McChrystal’s command came to light, the President was left with a problem. Seven months earlier, Obama had announced a large troop increase to Afghanistan as part of an effort to prevail in a conflict claimed to be vital to US national interest. What appointment could Obama make in replacing McChrystal that would be in line with the President’s contention that success in Afghanistan was of critical importance? The obvious answer was hero-of-Iraq-and-counterinsurgency-demigod Petraeus, and so the President demoted (lateral move?) Petraeus from Central Command Commander to head up the Afghan mission. However, the appointment presented its own problems. At the same time Obama announced the Afghan ‘surge,’ he promised to begin bringing home US troops after 18 months (~midyear 2011). Would Petraeus, a man now vested with an immense amount of military and security legitimacy, resist when Obama decided to pull the plug? If he did, the President’s political capital could take serious damage at a time when the campaign for re-election would be at a critical stage.

Obama appears to have found a solution by promoting Petraeus to CIA director. Petraeus now has less reason to oppose a drawdown in a conflict that is going less than swimmingly (see Steve Saideman’s excellent post on the subject here) because his personal credibility and legacy are no longer on the line. Moving Petraeus to the CIA also shifts his institutional context, and if Graham Allison was right about where you stand depends on where you sit, being at the CIA ties Petraeus hands for two reasons: 1) CIA has global concerns (less dog in the Afghan fight) and 2) CIA has a firm institutional emphasis on not making policy. So the promotion is a win-win all around. Petraeus gets out of a fight that may be impossible to win and Obama removes (or at least lessens) a potential political landmine. The only downside is the poor guy who will get tagged with whatever comes in Afghanistan after the US leaves.

There is, however, a dark side to promoting Petraeus to the CIA. Since September 11, 2001, the CIA’s mission has increasingly focused on the US military mission. Military commanders have pressed progressively greater demands for timely battlefield intelligence and policy shifts that accompanied the Bush administration’s GWOT put the CIA on the front lines. These changes are not cost free. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (and Andrew Bacevich regarding foreign policy broadly) among others has argued that the CIA since September 11 has become increasingly militarized at the expense of its traditional role as a collector and analyzer of political intelligence. It used to be the CIA’s primary job to know the kinds of things that might have led us to be less surprised by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The shift to a more militarized CIA means that the Agency no longer focuses on that kind of information (perhaps encouraging technological workarounds?), hence the surprise at the ‘Arab Spring.’ Since September 11, I think there is a good case to be made that we ask the CIA to do too much, and the increasing focus on militarily useful intelligence comes at the expense of the political intelligence that forms the basis of sound foreign policy-making. The appointment of Petraeus creates the real possibility that this pattern will not only continue but also be cemented and accelerated. If that is the case, Americans and their policy-makers will be increasingly in the dark about the world and what happens in it.