With Robert Gates set to leave his post as Pentagon chief this summer, reports are circulating that President Barack Obama will soon appoint CIA Director Leon Panetta to take over as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus to slide into the top spot at the CIA. Given the alternatives that Obama could have chosen—and probably would rather choose—Panetta and Petraeus are solid picks. Not only do they have proven track records and backing in Congress; they also underscore that despite all the rhetoric, Obama continues to fill key security and defense posts with people who understand the country is at war.
A little history is in order. It pays to recall that as a candidate and in the early months of his presidency, Obama rejected the Bush administration’s characterization of America being a nation at war. For example, the Obama administration made a concerted effort to expunge the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements, ordering the executive branch to use the banal, bland and bureaucratic “overseas contingency operations” instead. In quick succession, Obama ordered the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, sped up the pullout of troops from Iraq, put a time limit on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and made entreaties to the thugs who run Iran. In the midst of this 180-degree turn, Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
But Panetta refused to succumb to political correctness or the left-wing politics. “There’s no question this is a war,” he bluntly said of the struggle against Islamist terrorism.
“Unless they’re convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated,” he said of proposals to cut a deal with the Taliban, “I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful.”
While others talked about talking to Iran, Panetta told it like it was, reporting that Iran has “enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons.”
And he was an early and vocal advocate of the so-called drone war in Pakistan, calling it “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”
That brings us to the man who has fought al Qaeda on two fronts. Petraeus, it pays to recall, came into America’s field of vision at a time when nothing was going right in Iraq—and virtually no one thought the Iraq project could be salvaged. But that’s exactly what Petraeus did. After rewriting the military’s counterinsurgency manual, he put it to the test in Baghdad and Fallujah and Ramadi, altered the course of a war, saved Iraq from itself, and rescued America from defeat. As The London Telegraph put it in 2008, when it named Petraeus Person of the Year, he gave “another last chance to a country that had long since ceased to expect one.”
The hard-earned victory in Iraq—and his savvy demeanor on Capitol Hill, in the media and with foreign leaders—catapulted Petraeus into a level of popularity and notoriety that few generals ever experience. Pete Hegseth and Wade Zirkle of Vets for Freedom have argued that he deserves a fifth star for his exceptional command and leadership during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the two combat veterans argue that Petraeus’s wartime service and record are nearly unprecedented. They noted:
• That Petraeus “begins his eighth year as a combatant commander this year” and “will soon eclipse Washington’s tenure.” That’s George Washington.
• His résumé includes commanding the 101st Airborne during the initial invasion of Iraq, the creation of Iraq’s post-Baathist army, the development of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual, the execution of the surge that saved Iraq from civil war and defeated al Qaeda, leadership of CENTCOM during the two-front war in the Middle East, and leading the NATO-ISAF mission in Afghanistan, a command which came at great personal sacrifice, as Petraeus technically took a step down from CENTCOM.
“David Petraeus’ generalship has spanned 11 years, three presidents and seven Congresses. It is time to promote him to ‘General of the Army’ and award him a fifth star,” Hegseth and Zirkle concluded.
Petraeus probably won’t achieve that rarified rank now. But perhaps he will be able to extend his Midas touch even further, albeit more stealthily, at CIA than he could at CENTCOM or ISAF. The country would be fortunate if he does.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.