The unfolding scandal surrounding former CIA Director David Petraeus has many layers, far more than we can see today. But even at this early hour, some things are clear. For ease of discussion, let’s put these things—“known knowns” as Don Rumsfeld would call them—under four broad headings: the human, the military, the political and the geopolitical dimensions of the Petraeus scandal.
A month ago, putting those last two words—“Petraeus” and “scandal”—next to each other or even in the same sentence or article would have been unthinkable. Such was his stature and public image. But this sad story is yet another reminder that all of us have feet of clay; all of us are capable of doing great and inspiring things as well as dumb and ugly things. Our reputations are only as good as the depth of our next mistake. And as Petraeus now knows, the bigger the reputation, the bigger the fall.
To be sure, a key contributing factor in Petraeus’s outsized reputation was his impressive record, which we will discuss in a moment. But another contributing factor was the notoriety and even celebrity that blossomed around him, which he appears to have cultivated in some ways. (Just consider the book written by Ms. Broadwell.) This “celebrification” of military and political leaders is not new, but it is reaching epidemic levels. And it’s unhealthy for the republic, especially in relation to military leaders.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As Derek Leebaert reminds us in his essential history of the Cold War, The Fifty Year Wound, after Gen. George Marshall ended his career of military and public service, he “joined no corporate board…gave no paid speeches” and refused a million-dollar book deal, “at least the equivalent of a $7-million book deal today.” Marshall’s answer to the offer: “The people of the United States have paid me for my services.”
Douglas MacArthur, who was indeed a celebrity general, counseled that America’s military should stand “serene, calm, aloof,” always guided by “those magic words: duty, honor, country.”
Fueled by that very-human flaw known as pride, celebrity poisons that formula of effective command, as MacArthur and Petraeus learned in different ways.
By resigning and taking responsibility for his lapse in judgment, Petraeus did the right thing. But by doing the wrong thing, he jeopardized his reputation and capsized his career—a career that was far from over.
Petraeus came into the public’s field of vision at a time when nothing was going right in Iraq—and virtually no one thought the Iraq project could be salvaged. But that’s exactly what Petraeus did. After rewriting the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency manual, he put it to the test in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi; altered the course of the war; saved Iraq from itself; and rescued America from defeat. President Obama then asked Petraeus to make lightning strike twice by repeating in Afghanistan what he accomplished in Iraq. And then, the president tapped Petraeus to work his counter-insurgency and counter-terror magic at the CIA.
Petraeus was remarkably suited for the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns, able to fuse together intelligence, diplomacy, counterinsurgency and kinetic operations to wage a fusion war. Before Petraeus took his CIA post, a veterans group was even pushing the President to award Petraeus a fifth star for his exceptional command and leadership during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At barely 60 years old, Petraeus had fought and vanquished America’s enemies on several fronts. No one will ever know what this outstanding general officer might have done had his career not been cut short by his misconduct.
This isn’t to say that people don’t deserve second chances, but after falling from such a high perch, it seems unlikely that Petraeus will ask for a second chance to lead in a public way.
That brings us to some of the political dimensions of this scandal. A Petraeus run for the presidency or pick as vice president seems remote now, as does a role for Petraeus as defense secretary or Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. Fair or not, his indiscretion, in effect, disqualifies him from consideration for these roles because it could have compromised issues related to intelligence, national security, etc.
This invites comparison to the Clinton scandal, of course. Perhaps the most that can be said in this regard is that after he recognized his failing, Petraeus had a sense of honor and resigned for the good of his family and country.
The other political dimension at play here is far more important to the nation. After all, this is a scandal within a scandal. It pays to recall that Petraeus knew a great deal about the Benghazi scandal. Petraeus made it clear that his agency did not cover its ears when Americans under fire called out for help. “No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate,” a CIA official declared as the White House began to search for a scapegoat. Doubtless, that statement was released with Petraeus’s assent.
ABC News reports that “Petraeus traveled to Libya to conduct his own review of the Benghazi attack…While in Tripoli, he personally questioned the CIA station chief and other CIA personnel who were in Benghazi on Sept. 11.” This was just weeks before the sex-scandal story broke—conveniently two days after the presidential election.
Some, like Lt. Col. Ralph Peters (USA RET), think Petraeus knew so much that the scandal was used to keep him quiet. “The timing is just too perfect for the Obama administration,” Peters recently said in an interview. “Just as the administration claimed it was purely coincidence that our Benghazi consulate was attacked on the anniversary of September 11th. Now it’s purely coincidence that this affair—extra-marital affair—surfaces right after the election, not before, but right after, but before the intelligence chiefs go to Capitol Hill to get grilled. As an old intelligence analyst…the way I read this—I could be totally wrong, this is my interpretation—is that the administration was unhappy with Petraeus not playing ball 100 percent on their party-line story…I don't like conspiracy theories, I may be totally wrong, but the timing of this, again, right after the election and right before Petraeus is supposed to get grilled on Capitol Hill, it really smells.”
In fact, ABC reports that “Petraeus is telling friends he does not think he should testify.”
Finally, there is the geopolitical dimension. Considered alongside the Secret Service sex scandals and a number of general officers being relieved of command for various indiscretions, the unfolding and widening Petraeus scandal conveys a lack of seriousness, lack of judgment, lack of restraint and lack of propriety among people in key leadership positions—people who should possess all of these traits. It sends a terrible message to the world. Friends will wonder about decision making and stability in Washington, and foes could try to exploit the distractions, disorder and discontinuity.
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