General David Petraeus, newly installed Director of the CIA, is now the most influencial figure on issues at the top of the American foreign agenda. He has unrivaled prestige in Washington and among the public at large, he has close allies in the Pentagon and White House, and receives reflexive deference from President Obama.
Moreover, he has vaunting ambition and a steely will – his boyish looks notwitstanding. His foremost objectives will be to ensure that the end game in Afghanistan, the growing standoff with Pakistan, and the question of the United States’ presence in Iraq in no way detract from his reputation as being the master of counter terrorism who has salvaged a measure success from those dubious equations. Since that reputation is based on image more than on hard accomplishment, how the game of intelligence appraisal and threat assessment are played is critically important. Petraeus will not hesitate to use the authority and influence as his disposal to support policies that improve the odds on avoiding unspinnable outcomes in any of those locales.
Concretely, that points to an all out campaign to maintain the maximum American presence in Iraq that the leadership in Baghdad can tolerate. It means pressing ahead in Afghanistan in an unrelenting attempt to weaken the Taliban enough to force them into an accommodation on terms acceptable ot Washington. It means a no-holds-barred wrestling with the Pakistani leadership both to give American forces a free hand in the Northwest and to commit themselves fully to a military campaign against all elements hostile to the United States.
To justify these policies, Petraeus will take steps that place the CIA imprimatur on intelligence reports that paint a dark picture of the continuing terrorist danger from the region. They also will stress the critical stabilizing role of an active American military presence in the arc running from the Persian Gulf deep into Central Asia.
The Petraeus position on Iran is less predictable An intelligent man not prey to bellicose emotions, he is aware that a military assault on Iran probably would have grave and unmanageable consequences. Yet he will be reluctant to mute the powerful inertial within the intelligence community and the government generally to paint the Islamic Republic in menacing colors.
CLINTON’S LECTURE TOUR OF ASIA
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued her lecture tour of Asia with a speech on Monday in Hong Kong that called for observance of fair trade principles in world markets. China clearly was the country she had in mind in criticizing governments that press for bilateral trade pacts that implicitly discriminate against third parties. She also took aim at weak enforcement of intellectual property rights, a long-standing concern of the United States.
Washington has grown progressively anxious about Beijing’s strategy for forging trade agreements with Southeast Asian countries that are preferential to Chinese interests. The United States’ new emphasis on the multilateral theme is a departure from has been its standard strategy of entering into bilateral pacts of its own with regional governments, such as the pending treaty with South Korea. It is the steady weakening of America’s economic position relative to China that is motivating this shift.
This diplomatic campaign is not likely to be well received by Chinese leaders. They see little reason to deviate from an economic policy course that serves well its goal of sustained growth and influence in shaping patterns of commercial exchange in Asia. Beijing is particularly unresponsive at this time for two reasons. First, as the United States principal creditor holding roughly $1.4 trillion in Treasury securities it is acutely aware of the current crisis over raising the debt ceiling and its implications both for China’s holding and global financial stability. What they see as weakness and irresponsibility in Washington cannot fail to be interpreted as a further indication of the relative decline of American strength and influence in world economic affairs. They are in no mood to be instructed by senior American officials.
Second, Clinton’s criticism came on the heels of her public declaration in New Delhi a few days earlier of the need for an alliance led by the United States and India of like minded Asian countries to countervail growing Chinese power. That initiative did anything but put Chinese leaders in the frame of mind to be responsive to American importuning on trade questions or anything else.
American leaders instinctively use a tone of instruction when speaking to or about other governments. This is the legacy of the period of the United States’ dominance in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Times are changing rapidly but not the characteristic American mode of address. Increasingly, countries like Turkey and Pakistan, as well as China, are learning to say ‘no.’ They and others also are inclined simply to tune out when Washington mounts the podium to lecture them.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.