The still-unraveling scandal that has forced the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus has already touched on vital matters of U.S. national security. For starters: Did the spymasterpass information about the CIA’s secret work in Benghazi onto his mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell? As the scandal continues to widen, there will surely be other pertinent, and likely more disturbing, questions raised.
But perhaps the most significant question we’ll be left asking once the tawdry details stop leaking is: What happens to U.S. foreign policy when it loses a man of Petraeus’ experience, perspective, and institutional memory? For all of his peerless expertise regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the question is especially relevant regarding Iran.
According to former Petraeus aides, leading military officials, policymakers, and analysts close to the four-star general that I spoke to this week, Petraeus understood, more than anyone else in our national-security apparatus, that the Islamic Republic is at war with the United States. By Petraeus’ reckoning, they said, it’s not possible to strike a grand bargain with Iran over its nuclear weapons program because the larger problem is the regime itself, whose endgame is to drive the United States from the region. And no arm of the regime is more dangerous than its external operations unit, the Qods Force, whose mastermind, Qassem Suleimani, is considered by Petraeus to be a personal enemy.
In seeing Iran as a threat to vital U.S. interests, Petraeus bucked the mainstream of more than 30 years of U.S. foreign policy. Presidents and legislators from both parties, as well as military and civilian officials, have tended to downplay the Iranian threat, seeking engagement with Tehran in the vague hopes of reaching a deal that might lead the regime to finally call off its dogs and leave us in peace. Petraeus, on the other hand, fought the Iranians.