Michael's Dispatches

Petraeus: A Sad Day for the United States

12 November 2012

photo-1000(Photo courtesy of CIA)

General (ret.) David Petraeus is a peerless asset to the United States.  His contributions to the war and to the nation have been incalculable.  No one can estimate the number of lives among Americans, the Coalition and Iraqi civilians that his wise leadership saved during that horrible war.  His short leadership in Afghanistan rekindled my confidence that that war also might be brought to heel.  Unfortunately, he was sent back to lead the CIA, which was a great loss for the military.
Director Petraeus's accomplishments can never be erased.  He will undoubtedly be demonized for his affair.  It is not easy to ameliorate the stain that it leaves, as the potential final word summing up an impeccable career.

All Alphas have enemies.  Petraeus is no exception.  The finest leaders usually have more enemies than the company men whose mantra is, "Don't bail the sinking boat. The boss said the boat is not sinking." Unfortunately we have a surfeit of company men and only one Dave Petraeus.

Petraeus’s paramour is Paula Broadwell.  I know Paula, but not as well as I know Dave Petraeus.  I spent much time talking with Paula in Afghanistan.  Her beauty and her confidence are apparent in seconds.  It takes another five minutes to realize that she is very bright, and five minutes more to realize that Paula, too, is an Alpha.  She believes that women should be Rangers, and infantry officers, and are capable of standing beside men in combat. Ironically, her role in this spectacle serves as a counter to her own argument.

David Petraeus spent years downrange in the wars.  Some of his own staff members bailed from the stress, yet General Petraeus kept going.  In the middle of all this, he battled cancer and survived.  During a 2010 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he passed out at the table.  Yet he kept going and he never publicly complained.  And then Paula came along.  You might as well starve the man and then cook barbeque outside his cave.

During 2007, at the peak of the Iraq war, an infantry lieutenant colonel told me about the time that Colonel Petraeus was shot during training.  A Soldier accidentally put a bullet straight through Petraeus’s chest.  Blood and lungs were coming from his mouth.  Petraeus nearly died.

Normally a mistake like this might end the career of the Soldier who fired the shot, and it might adversely affect the career of his commanding officer.  Instead, Colonel Petraeus survived and he sent the young Soldier to Ranger school. It was the young commander, now older, who told me the story in Iraq. His man fired the shot that almost killed Petraeus.   If Petraeus had kicked the young officer out of the Army, it would have been our loss. Instead, Petraeus took a bullet to the chest and he turned it into a teachable moment.  That is David Petraeus.

Today journalists and others whinge that they were duped into the cult of Petraeus.  Untrue.  He really is that man, but he is also just a man.

Petraeus has a long reputation as a mentor.  Any insinuation that he used mentorship to prey on Paula Broadwell falls flat.  You can hardly talk to the man without him leaving you with a reading assignment.  "Michael, make sure to read Foreign Affairs."  With this one remarkable exception, the man leads by example.

Paula's intentions are the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation. It is unwise to hypothesize without facts, and Paula deserves the benefit of proper investigation. She is somebody’s daughter, a wife and a mother, and an American citizen.

David Petraeus has enemies.  Many wish to see him fall.  For example, years ago, a CIA officer confided an abiding hatred for General Petraeus to me. After the CIA officer explained the circumstances, I respected Petraeus more.  The officer had a sack of hurt feelings after a combat disaster in Iraq, to which Petraeus, instead of offering a shoulder to cry on, said buck up, there is work to do.

In Afghanistan, I would see Paula at the morning briefings where Petraeus presided. She is connected within powerful circles, including within the special operations community.  Access begets access, and once you reach a certain level, you no longer care about doors slamming in your face: every time a door slams, the concussion opens five more.  Access is a two-way street. Washington has a million doors down thousands of hallways, and nobody, no matter how powerful, controls more than a single hallway.  After you reach a certain level of access, nobody can shut you out.  Paula reached that level, and Paula enjoyed playing with high-tension wires where a single misstep can pop a career like a bug zapper, slamming thousands of doors at once.  Where this leaves Paula remains to be seen.

Conspiracy theories are crackling the airwaves.  The timing of the DCI’s resignation obviously raises questions, but the atomic structure of the event at least is clear.  Dave and Paula had an affair.  Dave preferred to resign rather than be fired.  What was okay for President Clinton is not okay for other government servants, and we all need to keep a handle on that.

No man is without fault.  This fiasco does not diminish David Petraeus's contributions to the United States, nor his positive impact on the many people that he inspired and mentored.  Dave stumbled. He is fallible. Nonetheless, he remains a remarkable man with rare insights and much earned wisdom.  After a decade of persistent sacrifice, he deserves a rest.  When General (ret.) Petraeus is ready to resume, no doubt there will be a long line of people requesting his able services.

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