So the rumors of recent weeks, about the impending shuffles in President Obama's national-security team, turn out to be true. And under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine a shrewder set of moves, both politically and substantively.
The shifts, which Obama is set to announce Thursday afternoon, are these: Leon Panetta replaces Robert Gates as secretary of defense; Gen. David Petraeus (soon to retire* from the military) fills Panetta's slot as CIA director; Gen. John Allen (Petraeus' former deputy at U.S. Central Command) takes over from Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan; and Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq (and envoy to Afghanistan), takes over from Karl Eikenberry as ambassador to Kabul.
What's glaringly obvious about this list is that, except for Gates, who is taking a long-deferred retirement, it's a game of musical chairs. No fresh talent has been brought into the circle. And one reason for this is that the bench of fresh major-league talent is remarkably thin.
There are plenty of smart, capable analysts and bureaucrats in the Pentagon's second tier or in the think-tank community—but very few, arguably none, who possess the worldliness, gravitas, intramural hard-headedness, and credibility on Capitol Hill that a president, especially a Democratic president, would like to have in a defense secretary during a time of two wars and ferocious budget fights. Gates, a holdover from George W. Bush's second term (and a former CIA director and deputy national security adviser during the presidency of Bush's father), had all that—and made a good fit with Obama's pragmatic bent, to both men's surprise.
In the past few weeks, I've asked a couple dozen veteran observers—officials, analysts, Hill staffers, other reporters—who they think would be a suitable replacement, from either party's roster. Nobody could think of anybody. This in itself is a bit disturbing.
Panetta at least comes close. In his time as CIA director, he's traveled to 30 countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan; in earlier incarnations, he was President Clinton's budget director and White House chief of staff; he made tough decisions at all three jobs without making many enemies; and he's respected on the Hill.
The next defense secretary will have to wind down the wars without losing them and will almost certainly have to cut the budget without wreaking havoc in the Pentagon. It's a nightmare job for anyone, but Panetta has as much experience as anyone at carving out that sort of territory.
Picking Petraeus to run the CIA is a move worthy of chess masters. He's been a wartime commander of one sort or another for eight years, almost non-stop. It's time for him to leave the battlefield; that was clear even to him. Yet for much of that time, he's also been a household name—and widely hailed as the U.S. military's finest strategic mind in a generation. So the question—which would have been vexing for any president—is: What to do with this guy? Some who are close to the general refer to this question, with a slight smile and a cocked eyebrow, as "the Petraeus problem."
It is well known that Petraeus has long aspired to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military. Yet presidents, their advisers, and their Cabinet secretaries tend to be justifiably leery of promoting to that rank any general who is so prominent, ambitious, and intellectually agile. The JCS chairman, at least on paper, has control over the Joint Staff, a multiservice body of nine directorates, consisting of several hundred of the military's smartest officers. The last chairman who molded the Joint Staff into a coherent, spirited staff—who figured out how to use its collective talents and inside knowledge to pursue policies and win arguments—was Gen. Colin Powell during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and (briefly) Bill Clinton. Most chairmen since then have been fairly mild-mannered, and that is no accident. One senior military officer put it this way: "Dave Petraeus will never be chairman as long as anyone still in power remembers how Powell ran circles around the interagency process."