13 Questions With General David Petraeus
Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), retired US Army General David Petraeus has achieved considerable distinction as a soldier, scholar, spymaster, and investor. Born the son of a Dutch-American sea captain who served in the US Merchant Marine during WWII, and having grown up a mere 7 miles away from the United States Military Academy (West Point), General Petraeus’s desire to become an Army officer was innate. “Deep down I had a considerable desire to serve,” says General Petraeus, reflecting on how he first got on the military path. Having earned a B.S degree from the United States Military Academy and graduating as a distinguished cadet in the top 5% of West Point’s class of 1974, General Petraeus went on to earn a Ph.D. in international relations and economics at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. General Petraeus continued to further his education through a fellowship at Georgetown University as well as teaching international relations and economics at the United States Military Academy. Apart from academia, General Petraeus’s career has been centrally focused on serving the United States via the military, the CIA, and, now, the world of investing, having joined the global investment firm KKR in June 2013.
General Petraeus’s 37 years in the military were well spent and allowed him to serve his favorite country, which in his words is “our own, the USA.” Having completed tours in Cold War Europe, the United States, Central America, Haiti, and Bosnia, General Petraeus came to considerable public notice during his nearly four years in Iraq. In March 2003, General Petraeus was exposed to combat while commanding the 101st Airborne Division during V Corps’s drive to Baghdad. General Petraeus led his division through deadly fighting in Karbala, Najaf, and Hilla – regions south of Baghdad – and in late April 2003, he led the 101st as it conducted the longest recorded heliborne assault in an effort to quell violence in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province – a governorate in northern Iraq containing the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. After returning home in February 2004, he was sent back in April to conduct an analysis for the Secretary of Defense and subsequently deployed again that summer to establish the Multinational Security Transition Force-Iraq, which he led for 15-1/2 months, as well as the NATO Training Mission-Iraq. In early 2007, President George W. Bush appointed General Petraeus to lead multinational forces in Iraq during the Surge, which reduced violence in Iraq by some 85% over the 19-1/2 months of his command. He would later go on to serve as Commander of US Central Command (COMCENT) from 2008 through 2010. Under the Obama administration, the Commander in Chief asked General Petraeus to leave his position as COMCENT to assume Command of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. While he acknowledges that his job in Afghanistan differed significantly from the Command of United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), General Petraeus noted that “each position was an extraordinary privilege…In truth,” he claims, “there cannot be a greater privilege than serving with our men and women in uniform – and those of our coalition partners – in a combat zone.” General Petraeus served in Afghanistan from 2010 until his confirmation as Director of the CIA in 2011.
After serving in the United States Army for 37 years, General Petraeus was unanimously confirmed as the Director of the CIA by the Senate 94-0, in 2011 under the Obama administration. First swapping out his decorated military uniform for a suit, and later his role in the CIA for a role in the corporate world, General Petraeus has fit a multitude of careers into one lifetime. In 2013, General Petraeus became a Chairmen of the KKR Global Institute – a global investment firm managing multiple alternative asset classes (with over $206B in AUM) – and after a mere 18 months with the company, he was made a Partner. In his post-government years, he also served as a visiting professor at the Honors College City University of New York, a Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, and an Honorary Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England. He has also been a private venture capitalist and supported a number of think tanks and over a dozen veterans service organizations.
Looking towards the future, General Petraeus believes he can “best serve our country by staying out of politics,” a mindset he’s adopted “from the time [he] stopped voting, when promoted to two-star general.” He currently maintains a rigorous daily routine of early rising, bed making (in line with the admonition of his battlefield comrade Admiral McRaven), and working out. General Petraeus plans “to continue to engage in private sector work that is intellectually stimulating, rewarding, and relevant to the issues of the day.” As a man of many talents, General Petraeus will no doubt have many more grand accomplishments throughout the rest of his career.
Q/A with former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General David Petraeus
Q: How do you feel the US is doing with respect to Cyber Defense and Security?
A: The US has clearly taken important steps forward with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, such as: the elevation of US Cyber Command to full combatant command status and various initiatives being implemented by US cabinet departments that oversee the security of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors. Nonetheless, there clearly is much more work needed to be done, including security for national elections, among other areas. The challenge in cyberspace is that the rapid development of new and increasingly sophisticated threats often outstrips our ability to develop the legislation, organizational capabilities, policies, and regulations needed to counter the new threats.
Q: You mentioned in your interview with David Rubenstein that America's new greatest generation is comprised of the people who joined the military post 9/11. Can you expand upon this? What do you want young Americans today to know about the veterans who have fought for them?
A: America’s “New Greatest Generation” is comprised of those who volunteered to serve in the US military in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, knowing that they likely would be deployed to a combat zone. It was a privilege to serve with hundreds of thousands of these selfless young Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines during my years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the greater Middle East. Even as our unemployment rate has gone down dramatically during the economic recovery following the Great Recession, these individuals have continued to come forward in substantial numbers to serve our country. They invariably have demonstrated impressive initiative, determination, innovativeness, and courage on the battlefield. It has been wonderful to watch the impressive work by so many of them since leaving the military, as well. Our country owes them and their families a great debt of gratitude.
Q: There are over 120,000 homeless veterans in the United States, how do you feel about the state of these Veterans? Additionally, what do you think we could do better as a country to support these Americans who have risked their lives to protect us?
A: Clearly, we need to do more for our veterans overall and in particular, for our homeless veterans. To be sure, there has been bipartisan support throughout Democratic and Republican administrations for more resources for the Veterans Administration, and as a result there have been significant improvements made. But, given the number of homeless veterans, the concerning rate of veterans committing suicide, and other issues, makes it clear that more needs to be done. There are many initiatives being taken to address the various shortcomings, and my hope is that the bipartisan support in Congress and public support across our country will continue.
Q: If you had decided to stay in California after the summer you spent there, do you think you would have still gotten involved in government? Did you grow up wanting to follow in your father’s footsteps and serve or was that an aspiration that came about later in life?
A: I think that deep down I had a considerable desire to serve. And, as much fun as we had during our summer leave on the west coast, I was inevitably going to return to West Point and strive to do my very best there in preparation for service as an Army Officer. My father’s service in the Merchant Marine during WWII was a factor but so was the example of the many serving and former officers in our hometown, which was only 7 miles from West Point.
Q: You’ve had two near-death incidents- but I’m more interested about the live fire exercise that nicked an artery where you said that you were lucky that the round went through your chest over the A in Petraeus as opposed to the A in Army, on the right side as opposed to the left. Even though it was just a nick of the artery, did you ever fear for your life?
A: On reflection, I think I went into shock pretty quickly and my initial concerns were not about my life but to have the unit that had been conducting the live fire exercise to do a quick after-action review and resume training. After that, I really don’t recall what I was thinking, except that I was hurting pretty badly and then experiencing excruciating pain when the chest tube was pushed in through my side after an “X” was cut into my side with no anesthesia. At some point, I think I realized I was going to survive and then my concern became how long I would be out of action having only assumed battalion command a month or so earlier.
Q: You mentioned that when President Obama asked you to give up the central command and go back and
be a military commander in Afghanistan, you didn’t hesitate, you followed the president's orders, “the only answer to a question like that is ‘yes’”, could you tell me a little bit more about that decision? Did you have a preference for one role over another? If you hadn’t been asked to change command would you have wanted to?
A: I thoroughly enjoyed the position of COMCENT (Commander of US Central Command), responsible for an area of operations that extended from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east, and from Kazakhstan in the north to Yemen and the pirate-infested waters off Somalia in the south. As we used to observe, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we were proud to be responsible for 90% of the world’s problems at that time – as well as 90% of the deployed US Special Operations forces. But when the Commander in Chief asks you to assume a new position, the only answer to such a question has to be “Yes.” Needless to say, Command of the coalition forces in Afghanistan was very different from Command of USCENTCOM; however, each position was an extraordinary privilege. In truth, there cannot be a greater privilege than serving with our men and women in uniform – and those of our coalition partners – in a combat zone.
Q: Even though you’ve repeatedly said you are not running for office, have you ever considered doing so at any point in time or have the events of the past few years changed your opinion on the matter?
A: No. From the time I stopped voting, when promoted to two-star general, I have honestly felt that I could best serve our country by staying out of politics, while offering my thoughts, when asked, to those of either party.
Q: How did terrorism change military strategy pre/post 9/11?
A: Clearly, the growth in Islamist extremist activities required the development of concepts and capabilities to conduct comprehensive civil-military campaigns to counter terrorist and insurgent activity. The bulk of my time as a general officer was spent helping to develop and employ those concepts and capabilities.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
A: I was privileged to lead extraordinary military and intelligence organizations.
Q: What are your plans for your future?
A: To continue to engage in private sector work that is intellectually stimulating, rewarding, and relevant to the issues of the day.
Q: What is your favorite country you’ve visited?
A: Our own, the USA.
Q: What is your daily routine?
A: Up early, cup of coffee and cereal while working email, cardio/strength/flexibility workout, and on to work!
Q: Do you make your bed every morning?
Q: What is your favorite workout?
A: An hour or more of cycling, running, or other cardio, followed by 45-60 minutes of strength and flexibility, usually while listening to podcasts.
Written by Grace Kelman, Edited by William Turchetta & Alexander Fleiss