The general's folly

The general's folly

November 16th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Gen. David Petraeus salutes during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan. Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

He was America's most honored general, and for good reason. From West Point to Princeton, the classroom to the battlefield, theory to practice, David Petraeus had studied. And then acted on what he'd learned. He literally wrote the book on counter-insurgency warfare, or at least oversaw its compilation and culmination.

In the Army's and the country's hour of desperation in Iraq, others were ready to accept failure there and call it statesmanship. Master strategist Joe Biden was advocating that we just leave -- and let that bloody mess of a country vivisect itself into three ethnic parts.

But this four-star general had a different idea. It was called "the surge," an infusion, not only of new troops, but a new attitude -- working with Iraqis on the ground, building alliances, recruiting new forces who would fight for a better, more stable and democratic future for their reunited country.

Naturally, the general was hooted down by those who knew only that they knew better.

In a phrase that will always stay with her, Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York who would go on to become secretary of state, said it would take "a willing suspension of disbelief" to believe this upstart general. The senator from Illinois, a political newcomer named Barack Obama, hastened to agree. He, too, scoffed at this surge the general was proposing.

But George W. Bush had faith in this general and his new approach, and what the armed forces of the United States could do, even adopt new ideas. And the surge worked -- dramatically. The tide was turned. David Petraeus, his command, and Iraqis and Americans together snatched victory -- or at least success -- from the jaws of a defeat that had looked inevitable.

•••

There is no misfortune that cannot lead to change for the better. In this case, it led to General Petraeus being recognized as both the visionary and practical-minded leader he was.

The man's reputation as both seer and leader had been established, and he was a natural pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, where he lasted until his abrupt resignation last week.

Why did he have to go? His shamefaced announcement to the stunned agency he headed told the story: "After being married for 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extra-marital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours." An organization in charge of the country's secrets and its secret exploits.

His indiscretion affected not just the general and his family, but opened a security breach with unpredictable consequences that no intelligence agency can afford. Indeed, the general's affair was uncovered in the course of the FBI's investigation into an unrelated question. Once the investigation began, it uncovered the affair. The end -- of his brilliant career, of his outstanding service to his country, of an untarnished reputation -- was unavoidable.

The general's predecessor in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had to resign after making some indiscreet comments that reflected poorly on the president and commander-in-chief. And now David Petraeus realized there was no honorable course but for him to submit his own resignation. And the president had to reluctantly agree. His resignation took effect immediately.

•••

No doubt the general and his lover had hoped, like so many involved in such affairs, that this would remain a private matter and that no one else would know, or be hurt. David Petraeus wouldn't be the first, and he surely won't be the last, to make that mistake. He failed to appreciate the whole interconnected web of family and friends, duties and joys, that each of us constructs over a lifetime. And that by jeopardizing just one strand of that tangled web, we begin to unravel the whole.

Imagine the reaction of Barack Obama, returning to the White House after his triumphal re-election speech in Chicago, to find out that, oh, yes, Mr. President, your CIA director is submitting his resignation. What?! Talk about having to push the reset button. Life is just full of surprises, including surprising disappointments in the best of men.

All the success and recognition in the world can be lost in a single moral lapse. To withstand that kind of temptation requires not just a strong moral code but an alert one. Strength may not be enough if it is not matched by vigilance.

It's an old story with an old moral: Even the best of men may prove only a man. The country would surely forgive the general's indiscretion. His place in American military history and his lasting influence over the country's military strategy will remain assured. But can the general forgive himself? That is his next great challenge, and one he'll have to work out by and with himself.

Like the rest of his countrymen, with gratitude for all the things David Petraeus has done for his country and for the cause of freedom in the world, we wish him well.