David Petraeus’s resignation marks the end of one of the great postwar military and government careers — his successful surge in Iraq being analogous to and as impressive as Matthew Ridgway’s salvation of Korea or Sherman’s sudden taking of Atlanta that saved Lincoln’s and the Union cause before the 1864 elections. In a book due out in late spring, The Savior Generals, I argue that his achievements were comparable to those of the best of history’s maverick commanders who were asked to save wars deemed lost — and did. But for now, the explanation of Petraeus’s resignation unfortunately raises more questions than it answers, in a number of significant ways:
1) Fairly or not, questions will be raised why this Washington-style Friday-afternoon resignation occurred after rather than before the election — a question that does not necessarily suggest that Petraeus did not take the proper nonpartisan course. But just days after this Tuesday, we are already beginning to hear of all sorts of “sudden” news: the Iranian attack on a U.S. drone; the plight of the Hurricane Sandy victims (400,000 still without power? gas rationing, tens of thousands homeless, exposure to cold?, etc.) as much more severe than we were led to believe; the sudden publicity on the “fiscal cliff”; and the Benghazi hearings. In that unfortunate politicized landscape comes the Petraeus bombshell.
2) We were beginning to sense that the crime of Benghazi (not listening to pre-attack requests for increased security; not sending help immediately from the annex to the besieged consulate; not rushing in additional military forces during the hours-long attack) and the cover-up (inventing the narrative of a spontaneous demonstration gone wild to support a pre-election administration narrative of an impotent al-Qaeda, a successful Libya, a positive Arab Spring, and a cool, competent commander-in-chief, slayer of bin Laden and architect of momentous Middle East change) were not the entire story of the 9/11/2012 attack: Why was there a consulate at all in Benghazi, given that most nations have shut down their main embassies in Tripoli? Why was there such a large CIA contingent nearby — what were they doing and why and for whom? Why did the ambassador think he needed more security when so many CIA operatives were stationed just minutes away? What was the exact security relationship between the annex and the consulate, and why the apparent quiet about it? Who exactly were the terrorist hit-teams, and did they have a particular agenda, and, if so, what and for whom? All these questions had not been answered and probably would have been raised during the scheduled Petraeus testimony — which is apparently now canceled, but why that is so, no one quite knows. And if Hillary Clinton departs, and perhaps Susan Rice and James Clapper as well, then the principals of the decision-making chain leave with more questions raised than answered. We are sort of back to a Watergate-like timeline of a scandal raised but not explored in a first term, only to blow up in the second.
3) If rumors are true that the liaison may have involved biographer Paula Broadwell, co-author of an extremely favorable biography of Petraeus, then there are additional ethical issues that, fairly or not, call into question Broadwell’s bona fides as an author and the portrait of Petraeus in her warmly received book. And if the FBI was involved, then additional questions arise over the reasons they also became interested — when, why, how, and on whose prompting?
4) Because of both Petraeus’s sterling reputation and his high office, infidelity takes on greater importance than if it were — how absurd to write this — merely that of a lesser figure like Bill Clinton, whose serial miscreant conduct was taken for granted, even when he was a sitting president. If the affair occurred while Petraeus was general, it contradicted the code of military justice; if while at the CIA, it posed a potential security breach.
5) For most of us, however, Petraeus is forever frozen as the hero of 2007–08, when, battered by the congressional hearings (Hillary Clinton’s “suspension of disbelief”) and ad hominem attack ads in the New York Times (“General Betray US”), he nonetheless pressed ahead and broke the back of the insurgency — in part because of his competence, his unmatched reputation, and the talented circle around him. After he came down from Olympus in 2008, his subsequent billets in Afghanistan and at the CIA took on political significance, given the Obama administration’s paradoxical and obsessive desire to affect his career by keeping him close by, while failing to appoint him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or supreme NATO commander — appointments that were offered to those of lesser stature. In 2007, the Left went after him as a “Bush general”; in 2009, the Right was disappointed in him for his sudden close, personal relationship with Obama. The truth was always that he sought to serve his country regardless of politics.