What do you do when the President of the United States asks you to accept a job that is not what you wanted, but of crucial importance to the nation?
If you're Gen. David Petraeus, you take it.
Asking Petraeus to lead the C.I.A. was a brilliant stroke by President Obama – politically.
First, as Doug Schoen and Jim Pinkerton, my politically savvy colleagues at Fox News observe, it eliminates a potential presidential challenger, at least within the Republican party, not only in 2012, but probably in 2016 as well. Although Gen. Petraeus had already asserted repeatedly that he would not run for the nation's top job in 2012, accepting the CIA post removes any possibility of a last-minute, dark-horse run by him against Obama in a field crowded with candidates about whom even Republicans show little enthusiasm.
By accepting a senior post in an Obama administration, the famously apolitical Gen. Petraeus can now be tagged as a Democrat, though as a military officer he has always kept his personal political instincts and predilections to himself. But agreeing to serve such a sensitive post in an Obama administration probably disqualifies him at least as a Republican contender for commander-in-chief, or even the Veep slot, in 2016 as well.
Fear of a Petraeus challenge undoubtedly kept Obama from naming the talented general to the job he so richly deserved – chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ending his star-studded military career with so sensitive a civilian post would only have further enhanced Petraeus' reputation as the nation's best known, most experienced general.
By making him CIA director, Obama guarantees that he will control the general's public profile: Petraeus will only be as public a spokesman as the president wants him to be. So, President Obama appears to have eliminated the "Eisenhower" problem for himself in 2012 and his party in 2016 if Petraeus turns out to be a closet Republican, as so many of his friends and supporters suspect.
"It takes him off the playing field," says Kenneth Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff under President Reagan.
Second, Obama's nomination is likely to silence what might have been a fierce internal critic of the president's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has surged forces to achieve largely political goals. At his Senate hearings and after his almost inevitable confirmation, Petraeus will be required to defend the president's policies in both countries, as well as in Libya, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously expressed reservations about being dragged into a conflict where the U.S. ostensibly has so little directly at stake. Thus, the nomination eliminates a "Douglas MacArthur" problem for the president as well.
The long-rumored shuffle – Petraeus to the C.I.A., and its current director, Leon Panetta, a consummate insider, to replace Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense -- is vintage Obama. Though pundits and policy experts have long admired the president for his ability to rouse the nation with stirring words, they have often underestimated his expert use of his political stiletto to eliminate potential foes and challengers. While some saw his appointment of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state as a sign that the relatively young, inexperienced president wanted to surround himself a "team of rivals" – the brightest, most experienced people in policy and politics – the move also eliminated his most articulate potential challenger and critic. Becoming Secretary of State has publicly muzzled Hillary Clinton on many key issues.
President Obama knew that both Mrs. Clinton and Gen. Petraeus were unlikely to reject his appeal to neutralize themselves as potential opponents. Both found it hard to reject unique, important opportunities to serve the country at a critical time, rather than sit back and collect stock options. But at least Mrs. Clinton was offered the nation's top foreign policy post.
Not so, Petraeus. While the CIA director once commanded the nation's spy agency and reported directly to the president, the Director of National Intelligence has ostensibly served that function, at least on paper, since Congress redesigned the intelligence community in 2004 following a series of CIA-led inaccurate assessments on WMD and other issues leading up to the 2003 Iraq war. Panetta and Dennis Blair, the first DNI, had nasty, public quarrels that ultimately led to a victory by Panetta and Mr. Blair's departure in 2010.
Why would Gen. Petraeus, accustomed to being in full command of his battle space, accept a post with uncertain responsibility and access to the president? Because the president asked him to do so. And because ultimately, Gen. Petraeus is willing to put his patriotism above whatever political ambitions he may have.
President Obama is, indeed, a shrewd judge of character. Too bad he has far proven less successful so far at combating the nation's external, rather than his internal challengers.