Rearranging the deck chairs

No doubt foreign policy wonks will be all a-twitter for a day or so, chewing over the news that President Obama is going to move CIA head Leon Panetta over to DoD to replace outgoing Secretary Robert Gates, and then replace Panetta with Afghan commander General David Petraeus. This is the sort of event that ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Mandel Ngan - Pool/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan - Pool/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan - Pool/Getty Images

No doubt foreign policy wonks will be all a-twitter for a day or so, chewing over the news that President Obama is going to move CIA head Leon Panetta over to DoD to replace outgoing Secretary Robert Gates, and then replace Panetta with Afghan commander General David Petraeus. This is the sort of event that Washington-watchers tend to see as Very Significant, but I'm sticking with my original view: this sort of reshuffle doesn't matter very much.

Why? Because there's no reason to suppose that Panetta or Petraeus will be bringing either new ideas, new political clout, or substantially different managerial expertise to their jobs.  The only way to get a dramatic change in U.S. national security policy would be if either man were going to recommend fundamentally different policies, or if either man was going to be substantially more effective at implementing policies that were already in place. But there's no reason to assume that either of these conditions will hold.

Mind you, I'm not knocking Panetta or Petraeus. The former is a consummate Washington insider, and presumably will be reasonably effective at maneuvering in the Beltway jungle. So was outgoing SecDef Gates, however, so Panetta's move into the Pentagon doesn't really change anything. Moreover, is there any evidence that he has new, original, or creative ideas about either defense management or national strategy? If so, I haven't seen them. As for Petraeus, he's been an energetic defender of the basic thrust of U.S. military policy for more than a decade, including our emphasis on fighting costly wars in the periphery. More importantly, for all the talk of winning hearts and minds through a more sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy, he's also been a big fan of using CIA drones to fight the AfPak war. So there's no reason to expect a significant shift in how the CIA operates.

No doubt foreign policy wonks will be all a-twitter for a day or so, chewing over the news that President Obama is going to move CIA head Leon Panetta over to DoD to replace outgoing Secretary Robert Gates, and then replace Panetta with Afghan commander General David Petraeus. This is the sort of event that Washington-watchers tend to see as Very Significant, but I’m sticking with my original view: this sort of reshuffle doesn’t matter very much.

Why? Because there’s no reason to suppose that Panetta or Petraeus will be bringing either new ideas, new political clout, or substantially different managerial expertise to their jobs.  The only way to get a dramatic change in U.S. national security policy would be if either man were going to recommend fundamentally different policies, or if either man was going to be substantially more effective at implementing policies that were already in place. But there’s no reason to assume that either of these conditions will hold.

Mind you, I’m not knocking Panetta or Petraeus. The former is a consummate Washington insider, and presumably will be reasonably effective at maneuvering in the Beltway jungle. So was outgoing SecDef Gates, however, so Panetta’s move into the Pentagon doesn’t really change anything. Moreover, is there any evidence that he has new, original, or creative ideas about either defense management or national strategy? If so, I haven’t seen them. As for Petraeus, he’s been an energetic defender of the basic thrust of U.S. military policy for more than a decade, including our emphasis on fighting costly wars in the periphery. More importantly, for all the talk of winning hearts and minds through a more sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy, he’s also been a big fan of using CIA drones to fight the AfPak war. So there’s no reason to expect a significant shift in how the CIA operates.

In short, there’s less here than meets the eye, but that won’t stop Washingtonians (and bloggers like me) from talking about it.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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