The Year Ahead/Politics

David Petraeus on the Biggest National Security Threats of 2018

The former U.S. Army general and CIA director talks about Iran, North Korea, Niger, and whether he’d work for Trump.

Petraeus in 2015.

Photographer: C Flanigan/Getty Images

Nafeesa Syeed: With the fight against Islamic State winding down, what can we expect next in Iraq and Syria?
David Petraeus: This is a very significant achievement and a validation of the strategy that was begun by the previous administration and then accelerated by this one. But the battle after the battle is what matters most.

In Iraq, this is the battle over power and resources. The future of Iraq, frankly, will depend a great deal on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ability to practice inclusive governance to ensure that the Sunni Arab community that felt alienated and even abused by the previous prime minister [is brought] back into the fabric of society.

In Syria, there is going to have to be stabilization of the cease-fire lines, the provision of humanitarian assistance, the establishment of local security forces and local governance, and then over time the determination of a path forward for Syria as a whole or perhaps Syria as a number of entities.

What might we see in 2018 with Iran and the nuclear deal?
We need to see what happens in 2017 first, because Congress now has to take action within 60 days of the president choosing not to certify the agreement. There will have to be a determination of whether to reform or to change that particular law and also what Congress might initiate in terms of legislation that puts sanctions on Iran over its missile program, its malign activities in the region, and other actions of concern to the U.S. That is going to predicate to a considerable degree what takes place in 2018.

How should the U.S. manage the threat from North Korea?
The Trump administration is pursuing the appropriate course of action, which is to take steps that get China’s attention and have it tighten down on the umbilical cord that runs between it and North Korea. With President Xi [Jinping] in an even stronger position, the hope is he will feel sufficiently confident to take action against North Korea that is significant but sufficiently calibrated to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses and to the negotiating table, but not necessarily to his knees, which they don’t want to see happen because they don’t want to see North Korea collapse and the Korean Peninsula potentially reunified. That is one of their red lines.

Will the U.S. deepen its footprint in Niger in 2018? With an additional base or armed drones?
It’s very hard to say. The Africa Command has always been a bit of a so-called economy-of-force mission, because of the demand for the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets—Predators and Reapers [drones] in particular. It’s not the platform that is hard to get. It’s the 150 or so people that keep it in the air, that fly it, that operate the payload, that fuel it, that fix it.

Do you ever feel that sense of déjà vu?
There’s never been a doubt that we would defeat the Islamic State as an army. But there’s also no doubt that after that there will still be residual elements. We will not be able to put a stake through the heart of the virtual caliphate, the activities in cyberspace, the way we will have put a stake through the heart of the Islamic State army. Clearly there has to be more done … to reduce the availability of extremist content online.

Do you think we might see you take a position in the Trump administration?
I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing as a partner at KKR and chairman at the KKR Global Institute, [professor at] the University of Southern California, a fellow at Harvard, and a personal venture capitalist.

So you’re not ruling it out?
I’m not job-hunting.

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