Last Week, on November 9, 2012, David H. Petraeus, one of America’s most decorated four-star generals, resigned from his post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) inquiry uncovered evidence that he had engaged in an extramarital affair. “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair,” Petraeus disclosed in a letter released to the CIA work force. “Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”
It has been widely reported that Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. According to the Charlotte Observer, Broadwell met Petraeus in 2006 after he delivered a speech at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where Broadwell was a graduate student at the time. After the speech, Broadwell approached Petraeus and informed him of her research interests. Petraeus gave Broadwell his card and offered to help, and in the months that followed he fully cooperated with Broadwell as she wrote her doctoral dissertation, which included a case study of Petraeus’s leadership. Broadwell then co-authored a fawning biography of Petraues, entitled “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” which was praised by the media as providing a “riveting, insider’s account of his life and education [that] is at once instructive and inspiring.”
As the New York Times documents, the FBI discovered the affair after investigating complaints from Jill Kelley (a resident of Tampa, Florida and friend of Mr. Petraeus and his wife, Holly) that she had been receiving harassing emails from Paula Broadwell. During the subsequent investigation, the FBI discovered emails between Broadwell and Petraeus that indicated the two were having an affair. Officials say the reason for the hostility between Broadwell and Kelley was because Broadwell viewed Kelley as a rival for her affections with Mr. Petraeus. In retrospect, Broadwell’s interview on the Daily Show back in January is revealing, in which Jon Stewart identified the central question raised by Broadwell’s hagiography of Petraeus: “Is he awesome? Or super-awesome?”
As Howard Kurtz noted, the Petraeus affair is “inherently fascinating”: “A general with a walk-on-water reputation abruptly quits the CIA and admits an extramarital affair. His mistress turns out to be his admiring biographer, who hawked her book all over television.” The story seems ripped out of a spy novel, and for networks starved for Nielsen ratings, it is the gold standard. On the other hand, however, the events surrounding Petraeus’s resignation and the subsequent media obsession over it reflect a deeper, more fundamental, problem with the American media.
The American military is (by far) the most respected government institution among the U.S. population, and the generals at its head are glorified and revered. David Petraeus, once the leading figure in the American military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, is no exception. Petraeus has long been regarded with deity status, on both sides of the political spectrum. Following Petraeus’s resignation, for example, Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine argued that “Petraeus’s downfall is a huge loss for the United States” – “not only was he one of the country’s top strategic thinkers, he was also one of the few public figures revered by all sides of the political spectrum for his dedication and good judgment.” In a similar vein, Thomas Ricks argued that Obama should have refused to accept Petraeus’s resignation: “So the surprise to me is that Obama let him go. But the administration’s loss may be Princeton’s gain.”
As Christopher Hitchens remarked, “Image and perception are everything, and those who possess them have the ability to determine their own myth, to be taken at their own valuation. Actions and words are judged by reputations, and not the other way around.” Petraeus was the spearhead of innovation and creative military concepts, and his analysis of the Vietnam war helped shape modern military thinking. In many ways, Petraeus had an outstanding military career. Americans owe him a debt of gratitude, and his service to our country should forever be honored.
But it must be remembered that, for all of Petraeus’s successes, he also leaves behind a series of indelible failures and scandals. In an interview with MSNBC’s Martin Bashir, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone detailed many of them: a worsening war in Afghanistan; a disastrous Iraqi training program; a series of misleading statements about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya; the attempted conversion of the CIA into a para-military force. And yet, as Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian notes, “none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps. [Petraeus’s] career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal – a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair – to force him from power.”
The events surrounding the David Petraeus resignation are a deeply personal tragedy. And certainly, whenever the leader of a major institution of the National Security State is compelled to resign, that news, and the reason for the resignation, deserve national media attention. But it is tragic that, while the war in Afghanistan remains off the public radar screen, a real-life military soap opera has managed to capture America’s attention.”To turn it into the Real Housewives of Tampa may be the way to sell [the Afghanistan war] or get people interested,” said New York‘s Frank Rich. “Though I suspect the moment this is resolved one way or another, people will go back to ignoring the war.”
$4 trillion; 298,000 casualties; 7.4 million people displaced or living in “grossly inadequate conditions.” These are the costs of war. But they have been utterly ignored. And they were rarely discussed, let alone debated, in the midst of all the campaigning that took place for the 2012 general election. From Foreign Policy magazine:
The 2012 election has certainly not felt like a contest carried out in a nation at war. Though 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and the 2,000th American was recently killed in the decade-long conflict, President Barack Obama has largely relegated his promises of winding down the war to an afterthought in his stump speech. His rival, Mitt Romney, barely mentions the war at all. The U.S. military pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, but that has gotten far less play in the campaign than the killing of Osama bin Laden. And neither candidate discusses how or when the open-ended U.S. war on terror might finally come to an end . . . The absence of wartime from the political scene enables the sort of election campaign we’ve had this year. Volunteer members of the armed forces continue to fight overseas, but the election turns on the economy. With the voters disengaged from American military policy, their representatives in Congress lack the incentive to act as a check on the war powers. It turns out, then, that peacetime in American politics doesn’t lead to peacetime policies. It enables American presidents of both parties to engage in a war without end.
One can only hope that David Petraeus, and the many people now involved, will find the private peace they need. Lives, and families, will need to be repaired. But what does this whole soap opera say about the media, and our priorities as a nation? The end of the Petraeus story will likely be less scintillating than it now appears – a banal sex scandal, a secretive love story that got exposed. While the Afghanistan war may require a different kind of coverage than the sexy bang-bang of the previous week, the American media is fully capable of doing this. With over 2,000 Americans killed, and 68,000 troops still remaining in Afghanistan, we should demand no less.