Mixed reactions for Panetta-Petraeus Defense-CIA announcements

General David Petraeus (Image: Flickr/ISAF Media)

The release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate has overshadowed another major story coming out of the administration today. Multiple sources within the Pentagon have told the AP and reporters from other publications that President Obama intends to nominate current CIA director Leon Panetta to fill the position held by outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and that Gen. David Petraeus will be chosen to replace Panetta at the CIA.

The selection of two outsiders — Petraeus has no experience in the realm of pure intelligence work, while Panetta hasn’t had military experience, other than tangentially in his two years as CIA director, since his discharge from the Army in 1966 — to fill the posts may seem an odd choice. The two men’s backgrounds, however, may provide clues as to why each was chosen for the job.

Petraeus’s popularity, spanning both party lines and the civilian-military divide (at least among members of the public who know who he is), is sure to be an asset in the position, as it has been in his capacity as the head of military operations in Afghanistan. More pointedly, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman theorizes that Petraeus’s endorsement of unmanned drone strikes and special operations raids like those undertaken in Afghanistan and Pakistan hews closely to the Obama administration’s preferred methods of using the CIA in counterterror efforts, with drone strikes and shadow operations.

Panetta, meanwhile, got the CIA post to begin with in part because of his success steering President Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget through the fat years of the mid-‘90s. Panetta later became Clinton’s chief of staff. His experience with budgets — he also headed up the House Budget Committee for years prior to leaving the world of elected office for Clintonian pastures — could be a sign that the administration is looking for a numbers man to justify bloated defense spending. Until the administration officially confirms its picks, however, it won’t be forthcoming with explanations for its choices.

The news hasn’t inspired a uniformly optimistic reaction from intelligence or defense insiders. Ackerman reports in Wired that Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the left-leaning National Security Network, contends that Panetta, at least, will be entering a no-win situation once he takes over the Defense Department:

“He’ll never live up to what building wants or has come to expect,” Hurlburt says of Panetta. “Gates tried to prepare them that this is coming, and cushion the building for what’s coming, but that’s not tenable. It’s an unenviable task.”

The response from the right has been similarly lukewarm:

[H]e’s generating cautious, first-blush optimism from defense watchers, even among the administration’s political opponents. “Safe choice,” says James Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has accused Gates and Obama of cutting defense too deeply. With both Petraeus and Panetta, “no one is going to question whether they are qualified.” Even Gates’ predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, no fan of Obama, tweeted that Panetta and Petraeus are “outstanding leaders.”

Ackerman does not mention, however, that Rumsfeld’s tweet on Panetta and Petraeus was qualified by a followup:

…5 DCIs 5 US ambs & 7 mil cdrs in Afg over 7 yrs: No matter how capable the individual, musical chairs makes it impossible to find footing

Rumsfeld’s un-self-conscious criticism of the U.S.’s handling of the war in Afghanistan comes despite his role as the U.S. Defense secretary during the initial invasion, as well as the invasion of Iraq.