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Why Panetta, Petraeus are smart choices

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William Bennett: President Obama's new national security picks are wise choices
  • Bennett says the new team faces issue of unpopular and troubled war in Afghanistan
  • Bennett: Team must take steps to prevent disclosure of classified information

Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- As a conservative Republican, I've long been critical of many of President Barack Obama's policies and personnel picks.

Since the first day of his administration, I think most of the president's policies have been harmful and most of his personnel have not served him well, leading to a lot of mistakes and amateur judgment -- especially in foreign policy.

Even before he was elected, as further confirmed by the major recent essay on Obama's foreign policy in The New Yorker, Obama never had an "especially profound grasp of foreign affairs." Indeed, one of my concerns during the campaign was that the presidency was too important for on-the-job training. But I never subscribed to the view that the presidency was too big a job for one man -- especially if the president had a coherent world view and would be surrounded by a good team of advisers. This week, that team was just made better.

Leon Panetta being nominated as secretary of defense is a wise choice, while Gen. David Petraeus replacing Panetta at the CIA should comfort the right and left, alike, and help bring some common-sense and control to a still divided intelligence apparatus.

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Panetta is a genuinely decent man, and Petraeus is a hero, especially in his resolve through the worst of times in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The return of Ryan Crocker to Afghanistan is also good news for the same reasons. It is good to see several on the right also praise these appointments, as Bing West and Pete Hoekstra, among others, have done.

Save for a few exceptions where he has been too solicitous of the Islamist grievance against the U.S. and Israel, Petraeus has usually kept his counsel about public policy. It will now be good to hear him out more fully in open testimony and question him at length about his larger political and policy views.

Having made these appointments, however, is not the same as having changed or made sense of policy. It is a hopeful beginning, but success is not foreordained and there are several important questions that will need to be dealt with from both defense and intelligence agencies.

First, and most important: Afghanistan. As a senator and a candidate for president, Obama made much of the issue that not enough attention or resources were being spent on Afghanistan. His view was Iraq was the wrong war while Afghanistan was the right one.

It is ironic that today, after all these years of political recrimination over the decision to go into Iraq (and how it may or may not have distracted us from Afghanistan), Iraq seems to have been the easier country to deal with, to liberate and to pacify (as pacification goes in the Middle East). Today, there seem to be no good answers for how to resolve our current efforts or the endgame in Afghanistan. And, indeed, just a month ago, a large majority of the American people (64%) said the war in Afghanistan was not even worth fighting.

Second: Intelligence. We have been plagued, not only since 9/11 but before, with a degraded field quality of intelligence in some of the hottest spots in the world. Faulty intelligence has led to us missing warning signs and threats, and it has led us to bad facts as we look and have looked prospectively at other countries. Ideally, someone as used to hard data and analysis as Petraeus is will finally address and reverse these problems.

Additionally, there is the accelerated problem of intelligence leaks. Obama has actually been more aggressive in going after leakers within his administration than any previous administration, but, inexplicably, just this week the Obama administration dropped a case against a self-confessed classified intelligence leaker from within the George W. Bush administration.

Those who have violated their nondisclosure agreements and leaked classified information (be they in the Justice Department or in our intelligence agencies) broke the law and, in several cases, they have harmed our war efforts. Unless and until a message is sent about this by a serious prosecution of those who have taken war policy into their own hands, we will receive see only more of this -- not less.

There is still a lot of work to do on our battlefields and in the larger war against America's enemies. This week's appointments are one good step toward getting that work done right.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.

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