President Barack Obama’s choice of General David Petraeus as CIA director will bolster his national security team with a Republican favourite who is sometimes seen as a future White House aspirant.
The pick put a quick end to occasional Washington speculation that the commanding general in Afghanistan might ride to the rescue of Republicans as a 2012 White House or vice presidential candidate against Obama.
Petraeus, credited with turning around the war in Iraq, had denied interest in a post-military political career in recent years even while giving interviews and making speeches with the zeal of a politician during his trips home.
The imminent departure of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration, left a need on Obama’s national security team for a reliable conservative with allies among Republicans in Congress.
“Republicans see him as a solid conservative with obviously strong ties to the military and the intelligence aspects of Defence policy,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
“This is good for everybody involved. It’s good for Obama and it’s good for Petraeus,” he said. “Petraeus is the leading military officer of his generation but it was not clear where he would go after Afghanistan.”
The pick drew applause from Republican lawmakers.
“Without question, General David Petraeus is a national treasure,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. “I believe his talents will be well utilized as the new director of the CIA.”
‘IS THERE NOBODY ELSE?’
The appointment of Petraeus is part of a restructuring of Obama’s national security team that includes naming Leon Panetta, a veteran Washington politician and current CIA director, to be the new Defence secretary.
Trouble-shooting diplomat Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador in Iraq and Pakistan, will be named ambassador to Afghanistan.
Not every Republican praised the choices, however, with one consultant questioning why the experienced Petraeus, Panetta and Crocker were being rotated again into important national security jobs.
“There are 310 million Americans and Obama keeps choosing the same guys over and over,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen. “Is there nobody else?”
Much of the speculation about a political future for Petraeus had stemmed from dissatisfaction among Republicans about the quality and chances of the party’s potential presidential candidates.
In the CIA post, Petraeus will broaden his experience in Washington, where he could build support for a campaign in 2016 or beyond, knowing that one former U.S. spy chief, George H.W. Bush, later moved into the White House.
But retired General Wesley Clark’s disastrous 2004 Democratic presidential campaign offered a fresh example of the difficult transition from the military to politics, and the growing intensity of the debate over spending and debt lessened the need for a military saviour for Republicans.
“The way 2012 seems to be playing out, the Republicans might be better off looking for a captain of industry to step in,” said Andy Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State.