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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee