General David Petraeus, newly installed Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is now the most influential figure on issues at the top of the American foreign agenda.
He has unrivaled prestige in Washington and among the public at large, he has close allies in the Pentagon and White House, and receives reflexive deference from President Obama. Moreover, he has vaunting ambition and a steely will -- his boyish looks notwithstanding.
His foremost objectives will be to ensure that the end game in Afghanistan, the tense standoff with Pakistan, and the question of the United States’ presence in Iraq in no way detract from his reputation as being the master of counter terrorism who has salvaged a measure of success from those dubious operations.
Since that reputation is based on image more than on hard accomplishment, how the game of intelligence appraisal and threat assessment is played will be critically important.
General Petraeus will not hesitate to use the authority and influence at his disposal to push for actions that improve the odds on avoiding unspinnable outcomes in any of those locales.
Concretely, that points to an all-out campaign to maintain the maximum American presence in Iraq that the leadership in Baghdad can tolerate. It means pressing ahead in Afghanistan in an unrelenting attempt to weaken the Taliban enough to force them into an accommodation on terms acceptable to Washington. It means a no-holds-barred wrestling map with the Pakistani leadership both to give American forces a free hand in the Northwest and to commit themselves fully to a military campaign against all elements hostile to the United States.
To justify these policies, General Petraeus will take steps that place the CIA imprimatur on intelligence reports that paint a dark picture of the continuing terrorist danger from the region even while celebrating successes for which he will take full credit. They also will stress the critical stabilizing role of an active American military presence in the arc running from the Persian Gulf deep into Central Asia.
The Petraeus position on Iran is less predictable. An intelligent man not prey to bellicose emotions, he is aware that a military assault on Iran probably would have grave and unmanageable consequences. Yet he will be reluctant to mute the powerful inertia within the intelligence community and the government generally to paint the Islamic Republic in menacing colors.
How then will General Petraeus relate to President Obama? One theoretical possibility is that he will serve as the obedient servant of the Chief Executive managing the Agency’s multifaceted intelligence functions with scrupulous objectivity and holding in check his own preferences. This is highly unlikely. The Petraeus ego is too large, the respect for Obama too small, and the opportunities to push a personal agenda too wide.
A second is that he will use the combination of his titular position at the CIA and his network elsewhere in the security establishment to solidify a position of unchallengeable dominance. The latter looks to be the better bet.
(Professor Michael Brenner teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)