Foreign Policy: An Improved National Security Team?

David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf.

The reports that President Obama was reshuffling his national security team by sending CIA Director Leon Panetta to the Pentagon to become Secretary of Defense and replacing him at Langley with General David Petraeus had Senator Chuck Schumer of New York hyperventilating. Commenting on the possible moves, after noting that he and Panetta were once roommates on Capitol Hill, Schumer likened it to a New York Yankees line-up with Ruth and Gehrig at the heart of the batting order.

As any Yankees fan knows, even during the decade Ruth and Gehrig were together, the Yankees won only three World Series. Furthermore, as recent baseball history demonstrates, putting big names on your roster does not automatically produce winning teams. And finally, of course, Panetta and Petraeus, as good as they may be, are not the Ruth and Gehrig of U.S. national security.

In fact, the place to begin any analysis of the proposed changes in the President's national security team, is to just look, man for man, at whether the new team is improving on the old. Gates is certainly in the top echelon of U.S. defense secretaries. It cannot automatically be assumed that Panetta, strong as he is on vital issues like the budget, will be an upgrade. In fact, the odds are against it. Richard Holbrooke once told me Petraeus was the smartest general he had ever met. But first of all, he lacks important experience on the intel side and secondly, for all his experience dealing with Congress, he lacks the insider's knowledge and finesse of Panetta on that front. Furthermore, Petraeus' high profile will certainly rebalance the national security team and may be an impediment in the CIA job, especially since it is technically subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence.

One place the proposed shift is likely to be a net plus on a personnel-for-personnel basis is with the replacement of the capable Karl Eikenberry as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan with the even more capable and better-liked Ryan Crocker, our former Ambassador to Iraq. The other big proposed change in the current mix is replacing Petraeus with Lt. General John Allen who is well-respected but will have nothing like the DC clout of his predecessor.

Also, while former House Budget Committee Chairman Panetta will be a natural at navigating the scraps with Congress over the inevitable cuts to come, to do that right will require real insight into what kind of Pentagon we need to be building for the 21st century...a task that will require a massive education effort for Panetta. Similarly, while Petraeus will be invaluable in retooling CIA efforts to help win the war on terror and deal with threats in the Middle East, the reinvention the intel community needs will require Petraeus venture into areas previously little known or alien to him.

So on a man-for-man basis, the switch is something like a wash or a slight net negative. But to go back to my core point, teams are about far more than personnel. They are about chemistry and leadership.

In terms of chemistry, the team is going to face some challenges. Gates had deeply established relationships within the Pentagon — a forebodingly complex hierarchy with a language and culture all its own. Panetta does not and will have a considerable learning curve and will need to work quickly to establish key alliances. Petraeus will need to do likewise with the notoriously prickly and defensive intel community. Crocker, a veteran of five embassies, will no doubt hit the ground running in Kabul and will have a better time with the State Department than did Eikenberry, a gifted but sometimes prickly former general. But he has two problems. The first is the White House is increasingly fidgety about getting out of Afghanistan. And the second is the situation in Afghanistan is essentially unwinnable. A victory there is anything less than a howling nightmare.

Also, in terms of chemistry, the departure of Gates removes Hillary Clinton's most important partner in the inner circle of the national security team and while Panetta and Clinton have had a long-relationship, some close to Clinton remember that it was Panetta who was tasked during the campaign with smoothing out relations with Hillary supporters after she lost the nomination to Obama. He did the thankless job admirably, further cementing his ties to the President, but he also was sharply and publicly critical of many Hillary-ites and they have never quite gotten over it.

Finally, of course, it should be remembered that while the move to keep Petraeus in the fold will be seen as both his reward for stepping in after the McChrystal debacle and as a way of keeping a potential rival inside the tent, that Petraeus was an advocate for the doubling-down strategy in Afghanistan that was reportedly resisted by several key Afghan-skeptic players at the core of the national security team such as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Vice President Joe Biden.

As the tides of fortune ebb and flow in AfPakia, so too will those old divisions have the potential for morphing into new ones.

No national security team is better than its president, however. This is where the current moves looks best and where the greatest questions are raised.

On the positive side, this team has one huge advantage over the last: it has at its center a president with over two years experience actually leading U.S. foreign policy. He also has established relationships with Panetta and Petraeus and that's a plus. (Albeit that he is not super close to either and many in the White House view Petraeus' future political ambitions with some unease.) They also know him and how to work with him and that's important given the no-drama, business-like approach of the Obama White House.

But the flip side of this is that it usually takes Presidents who have no national security experience (see George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter) closer to four years to actually master the basic elements of the process. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the Middle East, in terms of the rise of new powers, in terms of addressing America's dangerous dependencies and weaknesses, Obama still seems to be searching for a clear vision and a voice. He often seems reactive and confused despite a set jaw and strong rhetoric. Mixed messages or messages and actions that don't jibe are too often the norm thus far for this national security team and in the end, the President must take responsibility for these.

It is to Obama's credit that he picks generally strong advisors. It is however, inevitable...and indeed, it is desirable...that they have a range of views. He must be the conductor, the leader, the one who brings coherence to the team. That can't be done in a lawyerly, split the difference kind of way. And yet from his speech ramping up in Afghanistan to that announcing action in Libya, the message was, as I have written before, "hello, I must be going"...escalation and withdrawal, toughness and hesitation blended together. But adopting countervailing views is hardly the same as having a balanced approach. It produces confusion among allies and creates opportunities for enemies.

A more experienced Obama at the center is the most promising new member of this national security team...but he alone will determine whether he and America benefit from the diverse perspectives available within such a "team of rivals" or whether he and our international policies are undone by them. Announcements about members of the team are well and good, but what we are all waiting for is to see who, at his core, the President of the United States is going to turn out to be.

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