General David Petraeus, newly installed Director of the CIA, is now the most influential figure in making American foreign policy. 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 counterterrorism 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. 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 so as to force them into accommodation on terms acceptable to Washington. It means a no-holds-barred wrestling match 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, 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 inertial forces 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.
There are telltale signs already that he is moving in that direction. Petreaus' reputational stake in Iraq's future is paramount in his attitude toward Baghdad's political orientation. So it is understandable that he will exploit existing ties to the country's elite to maximize his personal influence, as well as the American national interest, to inflect the course of events there. Iraq's murky and turbulent politics dominated by personal cliques and clans offers rich opportunities for the Director of the CIA. There are reports that already he has communicated personally with Prime Minister Maliki, offering in effect his good offices to assist Maliki in finessing an understanding between Baghdad and Washington that would allow some American troops to remain despite fierce opposition from some of his coalition allies. It included an invitation to communicate directly with Petraeus.
Moreover, Petraeus has cultivated relations with a number of the Iraqi senior military men. Some lean toward drawing on the American military connection to bolster their weapons capabilities. They are aware of being outgunned by the Kurdish Peshmerga and -- like military men everywhere -- like to have a well-stocked armory for unforeseen contingencies, even if they do not see Iran as the threat that Washington imagines. And who knows, some day one of these generals may emerge as Iraq's strong man. The value of military-to-military links is highly appraised at the Pentagon, too. DOD and the Petraeus at CIA see eye to eye on prizing its potential leverage in Kabul as well as in Baghdad.
Petraeus, as CIA Director, is operating in a foreign policy environment that leaves much room for individual initiative. His counterpart at the Pentagon, Leon Panetta, is known less for his subtlety and bureaucratic skills than his heavy-handed use of the hammer. He has none of Robert Gates' suave manner and gravitas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is vocal on a selective basis, travels relentlessly, but lacks both a coherent strategic vision and diplomatic finesse. As for the National Security Council apparatus, it is the marked by weak leadership, thin expertise and a view of the country's external relations shaped by domestic political considerations. That leaves President Obama. His recent abject performance on the debt ceiling issue underscores the distinguishing traits of his person and his presidency. He is indecisive, yields to the pressure of those more willful than he, and has few pronounced views on any matter other than an all-consuming desire to occupy the White House until January 2017. Within 48 hours of the dramatic surrender to the Tea Party, and its profound consequences hitting home, he was prowling the moneyed precincts of Chicago and Hollywood on the hunt for big bucks from fat cat contributors.
For a man of ambition like Petraeus, it is a tempting -- irresistible? -- opportunity.