FrontPage | 11.15.12
By Alan W. Dowd
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’ 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.”
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.”
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
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 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
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 a 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’ 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
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.