Politics & Policy

Petraeus’s Bathsheba Syndrome

Why did a man we so respected succumb to temptation?

General David Petraeus is arguably the most consequential and renowned American military leader since World War II. His resignation because of an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has shocked Americans. L’affaire Petraeus has two parts that must be separated: his sexual relationship with Broadwell itself, and the link between the timing of the announcement of his resignation and the Benghazi attacks on September 11.

Here I will focus on the former. What led a successful general at the height of his power and influence to have an affair that undid all he had accomplished?

In 1993, Dean Ludwig and Clinton Longnecker co-authored an article for The Journal of Business Ethics titled “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders.” The name of their piece comes, of course, from the biblical story of King David and Bathsheba, recounted in the Second Book of Samuel. David seduces Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and impregnates her. He later orders that Uriah be placed in the front ranks of the fighting, where Uriah is killed. Upon word of his death, David marries Bathsheba. God is displeased and sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke the king, who repents but is nonetheless punished by the death of his and Bathsheba’s child, and by the later civil war arising from the insurrection Absalom (David’s beloved third son) leads against David.

Ludwig and Longnecker, as well as others writing subsequently, have argued that the psychological impact of gaining power, despite many positive effects, also may unleash a dark side: the belief that one is too big to fail, that the normal rules do not apply. Thus even a leader of high moral character may succumb to the temptations that accompany the acquisition of power. The findings of Ludwig and Longnecker regarding the moral corruption of the powerful go a long way toward explaining Petraeus’s behavior.

For one, they argue that moral principles are more often abandoned in the wake of success than as a result of competitive pressure. Success tends to inflate a leader’s belief that he has a special personal ability to manipulate or control outcomes, an issue that particularly seems to have applied to Petraeus.

The general clearly seemed to believe that he could control the consequences of his sexual liaison with Broadwell, his biographer. I reviewed her book All In: The Education of General David Petraeus for Foreign Affairs, and wrote that the book portrayed Petraeus as the modern exemplar of the soldier-scholar-statesman. “The Petraeus that emerges from Broadwell’s book,” I wrote, “is educated, committed, competitive, driven, and inspiring.” I noted Broadwell’s “extensive access to the general and his subordinates over a prolonged period” but concluded that All In had avoided the “pitfall of hagiography.” In retrospect, I was wrong.

Not all Davids who fall prey to the Bathsheba syndrome have an actual Bathsheba, but Petraeus did. Although I absolved her of hagiography, it seemed clear that Broadwell, a West Point graduate and Army reserve officer with an M.A. from the University of Denver and an M.P.A. from Harvard, was in awe of Petraeus. Twenty years younger than the general, Broadwell is a very attractive married mother of two young children, but her appeal to Petraeus no doubt went beyond mere sex.

As we are now discovering, many of Petraeus’s closest advisers were very concerned about the “extensive access” that Broadwell had to the general. Many of those individuals may well bear some of the responsibility for the situation that has ensued. The Bathsheba syndrome is usually enabled by a phalanx of loyalists and operatives willing to defend the leader at any cost. The leader thus may come to believe that he is somehow invulnerable, allowing his passions and sensual desires to tyrannize over his reason and good judgment.

This was certainly the case with, say, Bill Clinton. Although General Petraeus has always seemed to possess a moral fiber absent in the case of the former president, he too may have felt that he would be protected by his loyal subordinates. That is the fate of a man who succumbs to the Bathsheba syndrome.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the editor of Orbis. He is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been corrected since its original posting.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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