All the President’s Generals, Potentially Including One at State
The hopes and fears inside Foggy Bottom about a Secretary Petraeus.
President-elect Donald Trump has tapped a general for his national security advisor and is considering several generals for the job of Pentagon chief. But ensconcing yet another general at the State Department — even one who was once the most celebrated of his generation — may be too brassy for America’s diplomatic corps.
A person familiar with Trump’s vetting process confirmed to Foreign Policy that retired Army Gen. David Petraeus is among the top finalists for secretary of state — the highest-ranking cabinet position after the vice president.
“Petraeus is definitely in the mix, and I believe you’ll have a decision by the weekend,” the person with knowledge of the vetting told FP on condition of anonymity.
On Tuesday, Trump met for the second time with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a top contender for the post despite sharp pushback by conservative Republicans and Trump’s closest political advisors who bristle at Romney’s criticism of the president-elect during the campaign. Trump also met Tuesday with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, and is also believed to be considering former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The president-elect met Monday with Petraeus and afterward declared himself “very impressed” with the former general.
But at least some career diplomats are less than enthused. Petraeus didn’t always give diplomats in war zones as much respect as military personnel — even when the troops were of lower rank, said one current U.S. Foreign Service officer. “A suit’s a suit,” Petraeus used to say dismissively, said the diplomat who worked with him in Iraq.
Thomas Pickering, a retired ambassador who spent four decades in the Foreign Service, said U.S. foreign policy can run afoul when members of the military dominate the leadership ranks.
“If every problem looks like it’s solvable with a hammer, we make a mistake by always pounding on the nail,” he told FP.
Another retired four-star who moved to the State Department after leaving the Pentagon — Marine Gen. John Allen — said Petraeus would “have to change a little bit” to get used to a slower-moving bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom.
Allen most recently led President Barack Obama’s anti-Islamic State effort from the State Department. But he also served as Petraeus’s deputy at Central Command from 2008 to 2011, and said his former boss needed quick details about missions, or “his head would go down.”
“The State Department bureaucracy is not really efficient — it doesn’t snap and pop the way bureaucracies do in the military,” Allen said in an interview. “It doesn’t work in a hierarchical way…. He’s going to recognize that he’s never going to get a diplomat to tell him something in 10 words that can be said in 14 minutes.”
Still, he said having a former general lead the State Department could be valuable, given the variety of threats facing the United States, and Petraeus would be a phenomenal pick for the job.
“We’re in a damn dangerous world now,” Allen said. “For Trump to reach out to some of the finest military minds we’ve ever had — who have led very large, globally-oriented organizations — I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Petraeus is keenly interested in the secretary of state job, congressional staffers and former colleagues said. And he likely would be open to other diplomatic posts in the administration as he is anxious to rehabilitate and reshape his image after his fall from grace.
“He would be interested in a lot of jobs, even if it was technically below his rank,” one ex-official said.
If chosen for secretary of state, the move would place another military leader at the top of Trump’s national security team following the appointment of retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn as White House national security advisor, amid widely believed reports that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis is a top contender for defense secretary.
At the height of his time in uniform, Petraeus was the most celebrated general in a generation for his strategy to quell a bloody insurgency in Iraq and shore up a flagging war in Afghanistan. In 2011, President Barack Obama tapped Petraeus to be CIA director — a job he held only for a year before resigning in disgrace for sharing classified information with his biographer-turned-lover. He pleaded guilty to mishandling classified material, a misdemeanor, in an April 2015 deal to avoid prison.
In the years since the scandal, he has worked as chairman of the KKR Global Institute, which analyzes global risk, and maintained strong support from establishment Republicans and Democrats, especially neoconservatives such as GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
During his time in Afghanistan and Iraq, Petraeus worked with hundreds of Foreign Service officers and many speak highly of his service in both wars.
“He knows and appreciates the role of diplomacy in a way very few, if any, others understand,” said Bob Silverman, a former senior Foreign Service officer who served with Petraeus in Iraq. He called Petraeus “an inspired choice for this job” noting his “brilliant leadership of both military and civilian personnel in the most important overseas assignments.”
Other Petraeus fans said he won’t need to look back very far in history for a model of inspiration. His supporters point to Colin Powell, the retired four-star general who became President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, as an example of how military leaders can succeed at the State Department.
“Powell was an outstanding secretary of state because he knew the importance of workforce planning and fought hard on the Hill for funding to hire new Foreign Service officers,” said one current Foreign Service Officer.
Pickering, the former ambassador, called Petraeus a “very broad-gauged guy” who would do well at the State Department. But said the over-reliance on military leaders across the federal bureaucracy can have a negative effect on policy.
“It can bring a heavy reliance on the Pentagon, perhaps too much,” he told FP. “If they have all the money and resources and tools, that does reduce the influence and capacity of the civilian-dominated agency.”
After his meeting with Trump on Monday, Petraeus offered few details.
“I was with him for about an hour,” Petraeus told reporters after descending Trump Tower. “He basically walked us around the world, showed a great grasp of a variety of the challenges that are out there and some of the opportunities as well. Very good conversation, and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
In many ways, Trump’s interest in Petraeus is surprising, given his recurring line of attack against generals in the Bush administration who failed to win outright victories for the United States. “We don’t win wars, we just fight,” Trump often said on the campaign trail.
And then there’s the problem of Petraeus mishandling classified information — given that Trump lambasted Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton with the same accusation throughout this year’s campaign. The FBI investigated, but declined to charge, Clinton for her use of a private email server for government business during time as secretary of state, a setup that risked exposing sensitive information.
Trump “spent a year and a half beating up Hillary Clinton over revealing classified information,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told CNN on Monday, slamming the president-elect for considering Petraeus. “And then they would appoint somebody who the FBI says not only revealed it, but then lied about it in an interview, and purposefully gave it to someone who did not have the clearance to have that?”
Pete Hoekstra, an informal Trump advisor and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said it’s nearly impossible to predict who among the top contenders — whether Petraeus or any of the others — will ultimately be selected for secretary of state.
“One thing you learn very quickly about Donald Trump is that the only person that knows what’s going on is Donald Trump,” Hoekstra told FP on Tuesday. “And I think that’s exactly where he’s at with secretary of state.”
Staff writers Elias Groll and Dan De Luce contributed to this report.
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