Why the downfall of adulterous CIA head David Petraeus is not all bad news for President Obama

The commander and the president never saw exactly eye to eye; Obama now has more freedom to exert his will in the military sphere

Share

Few would describe the resignation of David Petraeus in such tawdry circumstances as anything other than a tragedy – for himself, for his family and for the other families involved. The retired general had been head of the US Central Intelligence Agency for just 18 months; he was one of America’s most decorated commanders, lauded for devising and executing the “surge” that brought chaotic, post-invasion Iraq under something like control. He had been spoken of as a possible future President. His 38-year marriage to Holly, herself from a distinguished military line and with solid career achievements of her own, was held up as an example to American military couples everywhere.

It is at this point, perhaps, that the first warning drumrolls might have sounded. The partnership of Al and Tipper Gore – the last exemplar of all-American family values – came  to grief in the aftermath of his failure to become President. The chequered relationship of Bill and Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, remains pretty much intact. Prominent Americans who allow themselves to become marriage paragons clearly invite trouble.

For all the raunchiness of Hollywood and the permissiveness of New York, American culture has a deeply conformist and puritanical strain that is as pronounced today as ever – perhaps even more so for those in public life. How else to explain why another accomplished general, Dwight Eisenhower, conducted a long affair with impunity, why JFK’s promiscuity was no bar to his holding the highest office, while Clinton was impeached for covering up his relations with Monica Lewinsky?

No adultery in the CIA

Politics, double standards and the vicissitudes of the moral climate all determine the official response to adultery, and there have been plenty of Americans in recent days arguing that Petraeus did not need to fall on his sword for a short affair that both parties accepted was over. President Obama’s first instinct, too, it seems, was to reject the proffered resignation as honourable but unnecessary.

In the end, Obama’s hand was probably forced by the position Petraeus held. For a senior general to take a mistress is one thing. When that general is head of the CIA, it is quite another. During the Cold War, the chief risk would have been blackmail, but any covert behaviour that exposes personal weakness inevitably makes the perpetrator vulnerable. Petraeus was right to judge he could not continue in his post, and Obama was right to let him go.

But there are other reasons, at least as cogent, why Obama may have little reason to regret the loss. Although the two had reached a modus vivendi during Obama’s first term, the commander and the president never saw exactly eye to eye. In one way, this was no disaster. After warily taking each other’s measure, these two intelligent, rather intellectual, men came to enjoy batting around their different ideas. 

Petraeus, though, had come to prominence under George Bush, attaining influence that, strictly speaking, exceeded his military rank. When he spoke in public, as increasingly he did to explain his counter-insurgency tactics in Iraq, he betrayed a certain vanity and arrogance. Such vices – hardly unique among top commanders – sat uncomfortably with his reputation as an ascetic soldier’s soldier. He also showed a measure of impatience with those he saw as too dim to understand, and a barely disguised petulance when challenged. 

A revered strategist

The “surge” was costly in both Iraqi and US lives, but it turned the tide of the insurgency and elevated an already revered military man into a strategist up there with the best. America’s gratitude was understandable: Petraeus had extricated the US and its then President from an adventure that seemed on its way to becoming a second Vietnam. It was now possible to envisage a peaceful Iraq, and  for Obama, as presidential candidate, to advocate withdrawal as a realistic, as well as popular, proposition. 

Once in the White House, however, Obama had his sights not just on withdrawal from Iraq – a war he regarded as a mistake – but on trying to win what he saw as the more significant  conflict in Afghanistan. After months of apparent dithering and several returns to the drawing board, Obama agreed to the Afghan “surge”, as recommended by Petraeus – whom he had inherited as head of Central Command – and it fell to Petraeus to implement the policy. 

It was never obvious, however, either that an Iraq-style “surge” would work in Afghanistan, or that Obama truly believed in it – hence perhaps the delays, and the fact that it was wound down soon after it began. Indeed, had Obama had more experience as President, he might have had the courage to follow the diametrically opposite advice coming from his ambassador in Kabul, a former military man, Karl Eikenberry. If he had, an earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan might have been possible. In snubbing Petraeus, though, he might have created a powerful enemy in Washington.

It is too soon to decide how much of the respect paid to Petraeus as a military genius is deserved and how much reflects canny political presentation. It is too soon, also, to say whether his tenure helped or hindered the CIA. But his downfall, and undoubted personal tragedy, give a more confident President a chance to trust his own judgement. His second-term security policy could be all the better for that.  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears