It’s such a cliché. A powerful man, away from home for years at a time, in jobs that put him under enormous emotional strain. A younger woman, attached to him by her job, spending endless hours with him on and off duty. That they fell into a love affair is so ordinary as to be boring.
What makes the sudden fall of CIA Director David H. Petraeus different? Nothing, really, except perhaps the timing of his defenestration, and even that is only mildly suspicious.
Petraeus had almost disappeared from sight after his move to the CIA last year. After winning high praise for his counterinsurgency commands in Iraq and Afghanistan — about which more in a moment — Petraeus was looked upon as an almost historic figure. No one knew his politics well enough to predict how the ambitious and still-young general would pursue the next step in his career. Before he took the CIA job, there was talk that he’d oppose Obama in the 2012 election.
But at the CIA, Petraeus seemed either to have changed or have revealed his inner political mind. Too many reports of his political acquiescence to Obama and Hillary Clinton were rumored, his reputation as a non-political player evaporated almost immediately.
Remember, this is the man who got from then-Senator Hillary Clinton a public thrashing in which she said his testimony required a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Clinton thus called him a liar around the time the MoveOn.org crew had taken out a full-page ad in the New York Times, the headline of which read “Petraeus Betray Us.” And then we learned some months ago that Clinton’s State Department was barring CIA agents’ access to several nations. Why Petraeus put up with that remains a mystery, but it confirmed rumors of his political descent.
And then we had the 9-11 anniversary attack on our consulate and CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya. When it was revealed that the people under attack — the former SEALs working for the CIA and possibly the diplomats as well — were pleading for military aid during the attack, Petraeus’s spokesman issued a very specific statement which sounded as if he had drafted it personally.
The statement said that no one in the CIA chain of command turned down those pleas for help. Which could only mean two things. First, it confirmed that the pleas for help did come, and were heard at the highest levels of government. Second, that someone higher than Petraeus had to have turned down the requests for help from Americans under fire. In the executive branch of government, the only person who outranks a cabinet member such as the CIA Director is the president.
Petraeus was supposed to testify at a closed — i.e., classified — congressional hearing on Thursday about the Benghazi incident. What would he have testified? Now we won’t know, at least until Congress subpoenas his testimony, which it should do forthwith.
Which inevitably raises the question of timing, but in as small a way as his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, was a cliché. Why did he resign just now? The FBI had investigated the correspondence between Petraeus and his lover, and between Broadwell and another woman. At first concerned that Broadwell had been given too much access to Petraeus’s email, the FBI determined that no law had been broken.
So why, just days after the election and less than a week before the congressional hearing, were we informed that Petraeus has resigned over the affair? The announcement, made late on Friday afternoon in the forlorn hope of minimizing news coverage over the weekend, was met with much tut-tutting among the pundits, none of whom, I’m sure, has ever been unfaithful to their spouse.
None of that faux-piety has any real bearing on the question of whether Petraeus’s removal was timed to deprive Congress of his testimony. We know — after Fast and Furious, after shoving the new arms control agreement through Congress — that the Obama administration will go to any lengths to stonewall congressional investigations and deliberations.
Petraeus’s testimony on Benghazi would have been of much more value than any other witness’s, and thus more potentially damaging to Obama. We know that Americans were under attack, and that both the CIA and the State Department were aware of it in real time. We also know that U.S. aircraft stationed at Sigonella, Italy, could have flown to their aid in less than an hour to suppress the attack and possibly save American lives. And we know that Petraeus — a former top commander who knows how to use air power, special forces, and all the other tools of war — would have been pressed by the committee on why those aircraft weren’t ordered in during the course of a seven-hour attack.
In short, Petraeus was in a position to know more, and explain better than anyone else other than Hillary Clinton or President Obama, what precisely happened here while the Benghazi attack went on. If he were honest — and that has to be presumed — his testimony could have blown the Benghazi affair sky high.
And it still may, but not soon. The Obama administration, in addition to its expertise in committing contempt of Congress, is skilled in delaying events to prevent political damage. But if Petraeus was forced out to prevent his testimony this week, Obama’s team will have only delayed and not prevented the damage that his testimony will eventually do. Unless congressional Republicans are complete idiots, they will get his testimony early next year.
Petraeus leaves as an historic figure whose legacy is not as bright as many people say. His counterinsurgency strategy didn’t defeat the enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan. It merely propped up tinfoil regimes that will either turn to be our enemies — as in Iraq — or will fall quickly and be replaced with enemies we’d fought before, as in Afghanistan.
There is no Schadenfreude here. I’ve met with Petraeus and talked at length with him six or eight times in the company of other military-oriented talking heads and journalists. He was a frequent participant — in person and on video conferences — with the military analyst group then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld created and of which I was a part.
Petraeus is brilliant, a congenial talker, and a very ambitious man. That those ambitions have been thwarted by this cliché of an affair evokes only a yawn. He departs, not with a bang or even a whimper.