Hitting The Ground Running

A short drive from the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Northern Virginia is a challenging network of trails along the Potomac River. It is easy to imagine Gen. David Petraeus beginning his day running there, his gasping security detail in tow.

For Gen. Petraeus, who has a reported affinity for push-up contests and foot races against subordinates, he will indeed have to hit the ground running when he takes over as CIA director later this year.

His selection is a sign the Obama administration expects the intelligence community to continue a wartime tempo in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, even as it prepares to call home tens of thousands of uniformed troops.

The next phase of U.S. efforts in Central Asia and the Middle East will be an intelligence war, and the shift of the current CIA boss over to the Pentagon makes this clear.

The intelligence community’s operatives and paramilitary forces, frequently blended with elite military units, will be of greater importance. Its fleet of armed flying drones already reveals the CIA to be on war footing.

Gen. Petraeus as a former head of U.S. Central Command, also occupies a unique place in the Mideast as the sort of soldier-statesman who has eclipsed the traditional civilian U.S. diplomat as the cornerstone of influence abroad. His will be a public face on secret missions.

Managing the return of American troops while grappling with the Pentagon’s trying budget politics, is Leon Panetta, who leaves the CIA to take over in Robert Gates’ slipstream. Mr. Panetta, who reportedly accepted the job with the requisite reluctance expected of someone of his stature and poise, must arrive at the Pentagon’s E-Ring offices ready to keep pace with Gen. Petraeus. Cooperation on Pakistan, among other sensitive issues, is a priority.

As much as the politics of appointing Gen. Petraeus are hazy, keeping Mr. Panetta close at hand is consistent with President Barack Obama’s reliance on experienced political hands for top jobs. Whether it is the wisest course is another question but with an election ahead, the White House appears unwilling to change.

With the election in mind, Mr. Panetta’s job is crucial. President Obama’s appeal for defense spending cuts leads him into treacherous territory where Democrats often lose their way. This year there is even more peril because tens of thousands of government and contractor jobs are at risk, as is the U.S. military’s reputation. How Mr. Panetta handles the politics of “doing more with less” will be critical for not casting the President as reckless or worse, naïve, in defense policy matters.

Mr. Panetta brings budget acumen and high regard from his tenure at the top of the CIA. He knows the ins and outs of the CIA’s secret wars by now, and will be an able foil to Gen. Petraeus when their interests do not line up and an excellent ally when they do. While Mr. Panetta will not have the political capital of Sec. Gates, this will likely be Mr. Panetta’s last post as a public servant and therefore he can work with a certain freedom younger candidates could not.

Mr. Petraeus, however, has decades of service ahead. Once on the job he will soon see that from the rocky trails near Langley, a runner can, with some effort, make it to downtown Washington. The route roughly follows the Potomac, eventually passing Arlington National Cemetery. From there it is a short dash across the river and up the Washington Mall to arrive at the White House.

It would be an easy run for Mr. Petraeus.