Monday, September 1, 2014
10

Saving General Petraeus

PRINCETON – The United States has moved from the high of a presidential election to the low of a political sex scandal in one short week. For many Americans, the election demonstrated what is best about the country, only to be followed by the sadly familiar process of knocking heroes off their pedestals. For many non-Americans, the election brought the welcome and reassuring victory of Barack Obama, whereas the resignation of David Petraeus as Director of the CIA was an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound.

In fact, both the election and Petraeus’s resignation are pieces of a larger whole: an America that lives up to its promises.

The election reminded many Americans that the US is a country committed to and capable of progress – of moving forward toward an ideal vision. Obama was supported by a coalition of minorities: African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, gay and lesbian Americans, and an under-represented majority – women – all of whom perceive continuing inequalities and injustices that need to be remedied. But the winners were all who believe that America is, in fact, dedicated to “equal justice under law,” the words emblazoned on the pediment of the Supreme Court.

In the election of an African-American president less than a half-century after the end of official racial segregation in much of the country, these Americans see the triumph of the values enshrined in the US Constitution over America’s legacy of social, political, and economic prejudice. They see a president committed to the advancement of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, creed, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, handicap, or economic status.

They also see a country that truly does reflect the world, attracting immigrants from every nation and giving them an equal chance to succeed as Americans. And they see a president with a vision of a country that can rebuild its infrastructure, reform its health care, strengthen its educational system, and boost its economic prosperity in ways that require all citizens to contribute – and that will, in turn, allow all citizens to flourish.

But how is this vision connected to the resignation of Petraeus, a storied and much-decorated general before he took over the CIA, following the revelation that he had an extra-marital affair?

Judging by my Twitter feed, most foreign observers simply cannot understand why a man serving his country in one of its highest and most sensitive positions should step down over something that happened in his private life – something that directly affects only those involved and their families. American culture, I explained, judges extra-marital affairs very harshly, so a senior official caught in such a position could easily be subject to blackmail – something that a CIA director, of all people, must avoid. My foreign interlocutors replied that, with the affair now exposed, the blackmail threat has been removed, so Petraeus should stay in office.

Many Americans agree. Indeed, Obama himself was reportedly reluctant to accept Petraeus’s resignation. From my perspective, however, Petraeus did the right thing: resigning was the only course open to him if he is to have any chance of repairing his reputation.

Petraeus, after all, had been General Petraeus, a four-star general who had spent his life in the military, commanding the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He graduated from – and later taught at – the US Military Academy at West Point, an institution guided by the motto “Duty, Honor, Country.”

In our cynical age, many might scoff at such an old-fashioned motto (or, indeed, at the power of any motto or slogan). West Point cadets do not. As General Douglas MacArthur told them in 1962, those three words “build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.” They teach you, he continued, “to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high.”

MacArthur’s rhetoric is stirring; some would say overblown. The ideals he expressed are lofty; he himself fell short of them on more than one occasion. But, by and large, the men and women of the US military believe in these ideals and do their best to live up to them, just as US citizens generally believe in their Constitution’s lofty words and seek to correct their national shortcomings.

Petraeus violated his own personal code of honor and duty toward his wife and family – and thus, in his eyes, toward his country, particularly to the men and women whom he was entrusted to lead at the CIA. When his affair came to light, he faced up to his failure, took responsibility for the consequences, and did what he believed that duty, honor, and country required.

The hubbub of tawdry disclosures and investigations addressing every aspect of a widening scandal may well last for weeks. In the meantime, Americans can only hope that their national elected representatives show an equal willingness to face up to and take responsibility for their failures, pettiness, and insistence on putting partisanship ahead of the country’s manifest and urgent needs.

These officials must now carry out their most fundamental duty: to govern. They must be willing to negotiate in good faith and compromise in order to enact laws, solve problems, avert crises, and build faith in the future. Let us hope that their oaths to defend and uphold the Constitution are more than just words.

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  1. CommentedJ.B. Borne

    Thoughtful write-up but David Petraeus's seedy affair is the least of his shortcomings. His blatant extravagance on taxpayer funding must be considered, as should his mediocre war record and his total break with the public trust. He needs to leave public life for good. He has shown himself to be weak and has made himself look foolish.

  2. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

    Hi Anne-Marie,

    If everyone who ever had an affair while serving in a responsible position had to resign, we would still be living in the Victorian Era -- or earlier. Many positions would remain unfilled for years, etc...

    For those readers who think that the people who have worn the military uniform at some point in their life, or for most of their life, aren't fallible human beings who might have imperfect relationships -- you are off on a tangent.

    Former General David Petraeus is a fallible human being, just like you and I. "Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone."

    In the most inconsequential way, this small melodrama may have impacted his job as CIA Director. But I doubt it.

    I would not have accepted his resignation and further, I would have written a piece in the NYT defending Petraeus and telling newspaper editors everywhere to get on with covering the real news of the nation.

    In my opinion, the so-called scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the smallest tempest in the smallest teapot.

    Best regards, JBS

  3. CommentedRodrigo Abarca del Rio


    Sincerely, who on Earth with even a single neuron in his head can assume that he resigns because of this “extramarital” affair ? Come on !! It is absurd and an insult to the intelligence of the people reading “project syndicate”. An relevant story would have been “Whom needed Gr. Petraus to resign, and how they achieved it ?”.

  4. CommentedArvind Gupta

    Odd.

    He faced up to his failure only when the affair was about to become public. If he had been true to his personal code of honor should he have resigned the moment the transgression happened?

    Or look at it another way. If this is a personal matter, then as the brave soldier he should not have resigned but should have taken the stance that it was a purely personal matter that would not come his way in discharge of his public duties.

  5. CommentedJorge Simao

    Really bright man foresee events long before they happen.
    Petraeus being the wise general he was supposed to be, should have realized that accepting to work/participate in biography book with a person that he considered physically/intellectually attractive and having very private meetings in a "far distant land" would create the conditions to promote an extra-marital affair. Being a senior person and a experienced general he should have seen it in his mind and change the course of developments in due time.
    By not foreseeing the events and/or having foresee it but not change the course actions, he proved that after all he was not the master-mind of war and security that he claimed to be and made everybody to believe.
    If I was president, and he was working in my army, knowing about the issue, I would have suggested him to talk with his wife in private, immediately terminate the extra-marital relationship, or simply resign.
    FBI vs. CIA rivalry also did on help president Obama being the great president that he also should have been in this case too.

  6. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    It is not about a political sex scandal and it is not about the aspirational military virtues of duty, honor, courage.

    At the core of military leadership is the importance of setting an example. In a transparent age, the conduct covered by example reaches further than duty hours.

    The presence of the comely biographer in Petraeus's command was governed by a separate set of rules than applied to everyone else in his command. What undercuts the integrity of command is careerism and the double standard. Those are the two principles in play in the Petraeus imbroglio.

    Of course, since careerism and the double standard are dominating facets of Washington culture, no one there really understands the failure of example and instead prefers to blame the Puritanism of the American public rather than the pervasive cluelessness of the American governing elite. The elite see themselves as characters in a Homeric epic; the public sees a bunch of water carriers.

  7. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    What "scandal"? That the CIA head gets wiretapped by the FBI? Who would care in Europe for the exmarital relations of a politician? There is a clear line drawn between private lives and public duties. The puritan Americans shoot and cowardly drone-kill abroad in Afghanistan but mock the Germans for beer boozing (at the army camp!) and harrass their own generals for having affairs. It is hypocrisy. Who resigned when a private first class was able to leak highly sensitive documents?

  8. CommentedJ. T. G.

    Anne-Marie; I liked your article. I wish those who govern faithfully followed the motto "“Duty, Honor, Country”.

  9. CommentedTim Chambers

    One notes he only felt honor bound to resign after he got caught. What would he have done if he hadn't been caught?

  10. Commentedjames durante

    Wow--reading this was like being back in sixth grade civics. Living in one of the most warlike countries in human history we would sing lustily, "It's a grand old flag, it's a high flying flag, and forever in peace may she wave... " You gotta laugh!

    The total hypocrisy of everything American is confirmed in the McArthur quotation, and I thank the author for that. We never seem to have a shortage of generals, banksters, hedge fund gamblers, politicos, administrators and senior managers who have mastered themselves. And we all have to remember "“to master yourself before you seek to master others." Masters and subjects: how little the world has changed in 5,000 years!

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