The denouement in the regrettable tragedy of David Petraeus was not a blockbuster, fireworks-filled, epic courtroom scene as some expected (hoped?) it would be. Rather, it was a whimper, a quiet legal resignation, and a tactical surrender to the legal forces arrayed against the former celebrated general and CIA director.
One of the country’s more sordid political controversies of the last decade, one that indulged perfectly the prurient public’s need for scandal, came to a quiet end, possibly in the back room of a judge’s chambers or in a plush law office conference room. One can almost taste the palpable disappointment of countless political reporters who no doubt looked to further explore the salacious details of the affair.
After all, what more could you want? Titillating love affair between attractive reporter and handsome Army man? Check. Flirtatious Tampa socialite upsetting the dynamics of the romantic liaison with her attentions? Check. Jealous lover threatening one whom she sees as a potential rival, leading to an FBI investigation revealing passage of classified information to a reporter? Check and check. Spectacular fall from grace of a once-revered leader? Oh, yes.
According to reports, Petraeus’ lawyers this week reached a deal for the former four-star Army general to plead guilty to mishandling classified information—a misdemeanor—which will surely prevent him from having to endure a lengthy trial, and will likely preclude him spending any real time in federal prison.
According to the same reports, Petraeus will admit to retaining personal notebooks that contained classified information, and providing those same notebooks to his biographer-cum-paramour Paula Broadwell. At the time, Ms. Broadwell was writing a biography of the general, and one might infer that she perhaps wanted more intimate details of the general’s mental state and reasoning for her book, hence her procurement of the personal notebooks.
Had Ms. Broadwell not threatened Tampa socialite Jill Kelley for flirting with the general, and had Ms. Kelley not subsequently notified the FBI of the harassment, this affair might have never entered the public eye. Alas, jealousy, pride, and poor judgment came before Petraeus’ fall.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more spectacular public collapse for such a celebrated military leader. General Stanley McChrystal’s sacking, due to his unfortunate comments to a Rolling Stone reporter, comes close. Petraeus, though, was seen as the preeminent military strategist and hero of the George W. Bush “surge” strategy in Iraq. He was credited with executing a highly effective counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, thus providing President Obama the opportunity to draw down forces, as promised in his 2008 presidential campaign.
In addition to pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information, Petraeus also faces a possible two-year probationary period and a $40,000 fine, according to the Washington Post. Thus, though he may be out of the woods legally with respect to serving a long prison term, Petraeus nevertheless faces at least some degree of monetary and judicial punishment for his actions.
Of course, some might argue that Petraeus is receiving lenient treatment given his status as a general and celebrated wartime military leader. Some might wonder if a young Army private would receive the same consideration. The answer is ‘surely not’; but we digress. We will leave that argument here, for now, as it is not ours to make in this particular piece (perhaps a later one, though).
Our purpose here is merely to reflect upon poor decisions and sad spectacles made. Ours is to take a moment to consider how quickly one might reach the pinnacle of power and prestige in American society, only to have the foundations yanked from below as a result of surrendering to base human desires and vanity. Ours is to wonder whether some might have secretly wished this upon the general, borne out of envy or desire for comeuppance. No matter, though. We are all human, after all.
Our goal here is to strive to understand that sometimes the people we need to win wars and lead men and women into battle, to lead our country, or to run our biggest and most successful companies, are not moral bellwethers. They are not our ethical compasses. They are not even necessarily always our role models. They are there to do a job, win a war, or lead us forward through trying times.
We should not worship these fallible humans as perfect, selfless, saintly heroes, but rather, marvel at their capacity to overcome their human frailties—fear, jealousy, self-interest, greed, vanity—long enough to lead us to victory. That is all that we can really ask of them.
While Petraeus might have erred spectacularly upon reaching the pinnacle of leadership in our country’s national security establishment, he nonetheless performed admirably in his role as a wartime leader in Iraq. For the short window of time that we needed him to give us his best, he arguably provided it, and helped us secure a relative victory (some might argue that point as well). For that effort, at least, we should be grateful. For the rest of the spectacle—what came after—we should just be regretful.