President Obama’s decision to nominate CIA director Leon Panetta to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates is one of the soundest moves of Obama’s presidency, which has generally been characterized by foreign-policy confusion and indecision. Naming Gen. David Petraeus to replace Panetta at CIA is just as encouraging. Sometimes right decisions are made for the wrong reasons. If it is true, as reported, that Obama decided to appoint Petraeus either because the president “owes” the general “one” for replacing Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, or to keep Petraeus out of the 2012 presidential race, let’s hear it for “political decisions.” Petraeus has already performed two successful mop-up operations for his country. He found a way out of Iraq and prevented harborers of terrorists from re-asserting their hold on Afghanistan. His record of success surpasses that of any general since Ike as well as those of a good many presidents. He is the man who offers the most hope of restructuring the nation’s premier spy agency in a way that provides presidents with the information they require to defend America’s interests against those who would do us harm.
As we noted earlier in the year in this space, Leon Panetta is one of the few people with the right mix of skills and experiences to fill Bob Gates’ large shoes at the Pentagon. A former congressman, OMB director, and White House chief of staff, Panetta is the consummate infighter and knows how to accomplish his goals in challenging circumstances. His tenure at CIA has taught him how to handle a recalcitrant bureaucracy. These experiences will serve him well at the Pentagon, where he will face constant pressure from the “new isolationists” — both on the left and within Obama’s administration — to cut the defense budget precipitously. Should Panetta successfully resist such shortsighted pressures and fight for an American military second to none, history will remember him, and the president who appointed him, kindly. Now that would be really something.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg lectures at Yale University and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Alexander B. Gray studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and at the War Studies Department of Kings College, London.