National Security Switch

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and writes a blog for Foreign Policy, talks about the reshuffling of Obama's national security team.

This week brought news of big changes at the top of two major national security agencies. General David Petraeus is leaving Kabul, Afghanistan and heading to Langley, Virginia where he will take over as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, while current CIA chief Leon Panetta is, himself, headed to Arlington, Virginia to take the reins at the Pentagon.

Walt said the shake up was a way of keeping people that President Obama is comfortable working with inside the fold. General Petraeus has been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate for president, but is also someone who the president has faith in, as is Panetta. Walt didn’t think this was signaling any major policy change. The Pentagon's budget was reduced under Secretary Gates, with the next leader facing the task of 400 billion over the next twelve years, and Walt thinks Panetta is a good pick for the job.  

He’s got a lot of the things you would like to see. He’s not a defense expert, he’s not a strategist, per se, but he does have a budget background and he was a nine-term congressman, so he knows the Washington jungle quite well.

In addition President Obama’s Pentagon team has been up and running for several years, so a leadership change shouldn’t cause any significant disruption in operations. Walt said that frees Panetta to handle the political aspects of the position. Some have questioned whether Panetta is up for the difficult job of arguing budget negotiations with that established staff, but Walt does not predict any problems.

Even uniformed military officers understand that — given the strategic circumstances we face, and given the economic circumstances we face here — that getting government spending under control is not going to be able to leave the Pentagon out entirely. I think they’re going to try to do this in a way that doesn’t leave the United States weaker, and I think that’s actually not that hard to do. It’s worth remembering that the United States still spends more on its military than the rest of the world put together, so there’s bound to be a little bit of slack there.

Panetta is not an intelligence expert, and in fact had no intelligence background before becoming Director of the CIA. Walt said he is probably more valuable as a skilled Washington operator. 

I don’t think you should expect to see new strategic ideas, new ideas about how to run the Pentagon coming out of Mr. Panetta, because that’s not his background.

Petraeus moving to the CIA will mark only the second time that a military officer has been in charge of the CIA. Former Director Michael Hayden was also a military general. President Obama referred in his remarks to General Petraeus as “a life-long consumer of intelligence” but Walt thinks his value may lie more in his skill at navigating Washington.

He’s politically quite savvy, politically has a good reputation on Capitol Hill, and that will help him in his job. And certainly given the positions he’s held, both in Central Command and in Afghanistan, he would have a healthy appreciation for the value of intelligence.

Walt said the military has a different culture from the CIA, in that the CIA can be more contentious and combative, with more debate over interpretations of intelligence. However the CIA has, in recent years, become more active in military operations, so it’s possible that moving Petraeus into this position will bring greater continuity to this trend.

The CIA has been involved in the military’s increased use of drone attacks, something Petraeus has supported. Recently the New York Times reported that Pakistan has expressed unhappiness with the United States’ use of drones. Petraeus has himself been critical of Pakistani intelligence help in the fighting against Afghanistan. Walt said increased tensions with Pakistan might be a consequence of Petraeus’ new placement.

Petraeus is not popular with the Pakistani Armed Forces and intelligence services, there’s been a lot of friction between them, as there has been, increasingly, between the United States and Pakistan. So you can expect the Pakistanis not to be particularly happy with this appointment. My assumption is that President Obama decided that was a cost he was willing to bear. Not appointing the person he wanted, simply because it would irritate Pakistan something he was not prepared to go with.