Petraeus Legacy Should Not be Unraveled by Affair
- Nov. 16, 2012
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In the fall of 2007, MoveOn.org spent $65,000 to publish a full-page ad in the New York Times that read, “GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?” Underneath this frivolous, repellent attempt to be clever, the ad was furnished with a dishonest tirade about General David Petraeus’ record in Iraq. The White House called it “a boorish, childish, unworthy attack,” and it was roundly criticized by both parties in Congress. The ad can no longer be found on the website.
However, for a few seconds last week, the ad seemed surprisingly clairvoyant.
On Nov. 9, General Petraeus handed President Obama his resignation. When I saw the headline, I immediately wondered if he’d done something unconscionable. “What would it take,” I asked, “to end the career of such a distinguished patriot?” My question was soon answered as my eyes dipped below the title. David Petraeus, the four-star general and former head of all US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command, the Multi-National Force in Iraq and the CIA, had been undone by an affair with his biographer.
But it turns out that the MoveOn.org prediction was every bit as brainless as it seemed. I don’t feel betrayed, just incredibly annoyed. How underwhelming.
Petraeus’s admiring biographer, Paula Broadwell, was also his downfall. But the title of her glowing account of his career is more than apt: “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.” I’m not trying to trivialize the impact of the affair on the families involved, but it should be nothing more than a depressing, personal footnote on Petraeus’s legacy, not the catalyst that unraveled his career.
When Petraeus was appointed director of the CIA, it was a reassuring moment at an optimistic time in the agency’s history. Only a few months prior, the CIA had successfully unearthed Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan before conducting Operation Neptune Spear to kill him. At the time of Petraeus’s appointment, the withdrawal from Iraq was seven months away and the surge in Afghanistan was slated to end in just over a year. It was the perfect time to utilize his vast array of talents at a more fitting post. His nomination was confirmed with a 94 to 0 vote in the Senate, and few observers questioned the appointment.
Leon Panetta’s short tenure as CIA director was characterized by a sharp influx in drone strikes and the elimination of numerous, high-profile Al-Qaeda targets. Panetta’s was also known as an abnormally vocal directorship, something that couldn’t be said of Petraeus.
Some critics, including Senator Dianne Feinstein — the democratic chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — were wary of Panetta’s appointment, citing his lack of intelligence experience and his political background. Conversely, Petraeus didn’t garner such high-level criticism. Here’s what Feinstein had to say after news hit about Petraeus’ affair: “For me, it’s heartbreak. This is a truly bright man, a credible person, a great leader, and could have really been a super transitional figure for the CIA. This is very, very hard.”
Petraeus commands this sort of respect — or, in this case, dejection — because he’s been undeniably successful. This is a man who seized control of American policy in Iraq right as the civil war was at its peak and conditions on the ground were spiraling into oblivion. He implemented an unprecedented counterinsurgency strategy, a troop surge that would eventually stabilize the climbing death toll, and a number of other common-sense measures to curb violence in major Iraqi cities. All of these measures led to reduced casualties for Americans and Iraqis and a more tangible withdrawal date. Furthermore, the steady pressure he applied to the Obama administration in 2009 was a seminal reason for the troop surge in Afghanistan, yet another necessary measure to stem the spread of violence and protect soldiers and civilians.
Performance of this caliber is exactly what the CIA needs in a world of increasingly vague threats. Petraeus has already proven himself to be an ambitious leader with a firm grasp on the realities of modern warfare. America’s primary intelligence apparatus has to have many qualities, but its most important asset is adaptability. This is what made the Petraeus appointment so encouraging – he was one of the few minds in the country capable of “fixing” the floundering occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan with bold strategic reconfigurations. Regardless of what his detractors say, these were astonishing achievements.