Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Panetta's CIA and Bush's War

Obama has chosen Leon Panetta to be the director of the CIA. This comes as a surprise to everyone. No one has written, "dark horse Leon Panetta." This comes out of left field. Leon Panetta, however, does not come out of the left.

In a further sign of how far Obama has come from his Che Guevara T-shirt days, Leon Panetta's selection returns yet another Clinton cabinet alumnus. However, what the selection means is less clear than simply choosing a known quantity.

A Republican who worked for Nixon -- though anecdotes insist he was principled where civil rights were concerned -- Panetta shifted party allegiance in the early seventies when he feared the Republicans were abandoning the center. Of course, to have believed in 1968 that Nixon was the candidate of the center, so far as to strive to work for his administration, shows both remarkable dedication to "the center" and perhaps a funny definition of what the center was in 1968.

The great mystery, though, is not how an idealist like Obama selected yet another pragmatist like Panetta, it is why in the midst of our generation's greatest security crisis, he chose as director of the nation's most important intelligence agency a man with Panetta's poverty of Intelligence credentials. Panetta has an honorable service record, but unless there is much about his service we don't know, his only relevant experience is sitting in on Clinton's briefings.

Panetta is an Anti-Iraq-War realist. Panetta came out strong and loud for a phased withdrawal early and soberly. If appointing Panetta is supposed to shore-up Obama's Anti-Iraq-War principles, it makes some sense. But I think we all hope that a post of this importance is filled with the best candidates. If not, this may be yet another indignity for the CIA, or a return to its glory days when reasonable civilians set grand strategy and let spies be spies.

Leon Panetta is a reasonable, if unctuous, man. He plays politics like people used to play baseball at the turn of the century: dirty, but with a smile. Panetta is the kind of politician who chooses his hair coloring very carefully. He is a veteran and his family are honorable Italian immigrants. let's hope he is also a spymaster.