Gen. David Petraeus won a 94-0 Senate confirmation vote as director of Central Intelligence Thursday, a vote that measured the virtually unequalled reputation the four-star general enjoys in a normally deeply divided Washington.
“America is in good hands with Dave Petraeus as CIA director,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina. In Senate-floor comments before Thursday’s vote, Senator Graham said the CIA was the best platform for carrying out the war on terror, which he said is a war on an “idea” and not one against armies and nations.
But the new CIA chief’s smooth sailing in the Senate is unlikely to carry over into his new job, which will include managing an expanding covert war on Islamist extremism even as some of the tactics used in that war fuel growing controversies around the world.
“Petraeus is coming on at CIA at a time when it’s going to be much more counterterrorism – the drone strikes and the special operations,” says Lawrence Korb, a US foreign policy expert at the Center for American Progress and a former defense official in the Reagan administration. “He’s also going to have to deal with much more opposition from those parts of the world where these tactics are used,” he adds, “but the opposition won’t stop their use.”
Noting that President Obama has followed through on his warnings – going as far back as the 2008 campaign – that he would act unilaterally with drone strikes or other covert operations if countries didn’t act on security threats, Mr. Korb says, “Petraeus will as well.”
Petraeus got his perfect Senate score even as news arrived in Washington that Pakistan has ordered the US out of one of the air bases from which the CIA operated drones. The unmanned surveillance and attack aircraft have been used increasingly to target terrorist safe havens along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The CIA does not publicly discuss the drone operations, and the Pakistani government only privately acknowledges allowing them to be based on Pakistani soil. But the drone strikes – which the US says have been instrumental in a campaign that has killed hundreds of top leaders from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups – are extremely unpopular with the Pakistani public.
The CIA is also ramping up operations in Yemen, where a weakened central government is seen as having lost control of territory that has been seized by a growing Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yet Petraeus has emphasized that he plans to guard against allowing the war on Al Qaeda to consume all of the agency’s energies. In his Senate confirmation hearings, the general said he saw it as his job to stop the CIA from being “totally captured” by the war on terror.
Other priorities he cited: China, the evolution in the Arab world, weapons proliferation, and cybersecurity.
“He’s got global intelligence responsibilities now,” Korb says. “It’s not just Afghanistan or Iraq.”