Like just about anyone else paying attention to the news–and especially like anyone else who was and is an admirer of General David Petraeus–I am shocked to find out that Petraeus has placed his career, his ability to perform competently and without hindrance his duties as Director of Central Intelligence, and potentially the national security of the United States at risk by having an affair. I am especially shocked that he would leave an e-mail trail so that others could more easily discover the fact that he was conducting an affair, and that he would leave himself vulnerable to blackmail. Because the affair appeared to have begun while Petraeus was in the Army, he could technically be subject to prosecution, as adultery is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To be sure, the chances of prosecution are virtually nil, but that doesn’t make it any less stunning that an officer who was plainly tremendously ambitious in addition to being tremendously intelligent would lay waste to his career, and engage in behavior that would pose a threat to American national security because of the sensitivity of the positions he held. Chalk it up to yet another instance of smart people doing incredibly stupid things.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, is on record as stating that she wishes President Obama did not accept General Petraeus’s resignation. I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment, but it is probably for the best that Petraeus leave. For the foreseeable future, at least, Petraeus has done tremendous harm to his reputation and given his cavalier attitude towards national security issues in conducting the affair, stepping down is the only honorable and prudent option available. I would hope that President Obama uses this opportunity to reach across the aisle in choosing a successor to Petraeus; outgoing Senator Richard Lugar’s name has been tossed into the ring as a potential Director of Central Intelligence and I think that he would be outstanding for the role. He is exceedingly smart, tremendously honorable, and very well-versed in foreign policy and national security issues. He could potentially serve as secretary of state once Hillary Clinton steps down–and Heaven knows that he would be better than John Kerry could ever hope to be at heading up Foggy Bottom–but right now, the CIA is doubtless in a state of shock, and Lugar is more needed at Langley to restore order, and esprit de corps there.
Benghazi figures into this story, of course. There has been talk that Petraeus’s resignation was somehow triggered by an effort on the part of the Obama administration to silence him from revealing anything about the attack on the American consulate in Libya that would reflect badly on the administration. I don’t buy this theory for a moment; if the administration wanted to blackmail Petraeus, it would have informed him of its knowledge of the affair and told him that the only way it would refrain from revealing it to the public would be if he held his tongue when invited to say anything bad about the administration’s handling of Benghazi. That having been written, I see no reason whatsoever why Petraeus’s decision to step down ought to prevent Congress from asking him questions about the CIA’s role in the attack, and what he perceived in terms of gauging the administration’s response.
But while this episode has very clear national security implications, it is also a very human story. Despite his incredibly bad judgment and his startling lapse in moral leadership, Petraeus remains a very compelling figure who during his career did much to enhance American security and advance American interests. The work he did in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan was nothing short of extraordinary, his efforts to acclimate the American military to counterinsurgency warfare were tremendously valuable and he was in the midst of possibly dramatically transforming the CIA for the better. I am deeply sorry to see him go, and I echo Blake Hounshell in calling this story a tragedy and in hoping that perhaps at some point down the line, we might see David Petraeus come back to public life and contribute in a meaningful and lasting way to serving the nation.