Petraeus was the model of what the modern military is seeking in its top officers: a combination of warrior, leader, diplomat and scholar with a doctorate from Princeton. It is not exaggeration to say he was the nation’s most esteemed military leader.
Driven to succeed both militarily and intellectually, he became a brigadier general at 46, successfully oversaw the “surge” he helped conceive that allowed us to finally win the war in Iraq, moved on to U.S. Central Command that oversees global U.S. military operations and then at the behest of President Barack Obama accepted what was effectively a demotion to take over the faltering U.S. effort in Afghanistan. (Curiously, he replaced another general who had to resign in disgrace.)
In September 2011, again at Obama’s behest, he returned to Washington to take over the CIA. His resume and careful cultivation of Congress led to speculation of a political future, if not as a presidential candidate certainly as a running mate.
After his return he took up with Paula Broadwell, 40, a West Point grad and Army Reserve officer who had written a glowing biography of Petraeus.
The affair came to the attention of the FBI when Broadwell sent threatening emails to a friend of the Petraeus family whom she apparently perceived as a threat. The FBI found that there had been no laws broken and no threat to national security but reported the affair to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who immediately advised Petraeus to resign, which he did.
However, word is now coming to light that various administration officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder (and presumably the president), knew about the FBI investigation much earlier, yet sat on the potentially embarrassing information until after the election.
An ordinary politician might have been tempted to ride it out, like President Clinton did; perhaps with the obligatory confessional press conference, the wronged wife standing stoically in the background and a boilerplate plea “to put this incident behind us, give my family the privacy to heal and get on with the work of this great country.”
Meanwhile, some suggest there was no need for Petraeus to fall on his sword for such a comparatively minor matter. He betrayed his wife and family, not his country. What’s important for a general are his ability to fight and ability to lead, not what he does behind closed doors. Extra-marital liaisons didn’t exactly diminish Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton’s martial capabilities during World War II, to cite just two examples.
Some say Petraeus had no choice but to resign. The country, including several of its presidents, may find the military’s adherence to a code of honor and fidelity quaint, but the uniformed services generally do not. Petraeus was nothing if not a soldier.
The general and his wife of 38 years, Holly, an effective advocate for military families, will reach whatever accommodation they can. Petraeus’ career in public service is not necessarily over; this country does have an unwritten statute of limitations. Bill Clinton has been a senior statesman for years now.
But for now, as we said above, when it comes to the departure of Petraeus, what comes to mind is “what a waste.”