The Real Sin in the Petraeus Case

By Bernard Finel November 12th, 2012

As you can imagine, the entire national security community is going wild with examining every salacious detail of David Petraeus’ affair. Yesterday’s buzz was about the possibility that his paramour, Paula Broadwell, leaked classified information that she may have received from her lover.

The whole thing is a mess. But I want to focus on something other than the affair. The reality is that even before Petraeus and Broadwell slept together, their relationship was a tangled web of conflicts of interest. He was one of her dissertation advisors, and her dissertation was largely about him! He managed to get her access as a “reporter” in Afghanistan, even though she has no journalism background, and in reality was more of a personal publicist for Petraeus. But she was also a reserve officer in the Army, making her, at least sometimes, his subordinate.

But here is the thing. Broadwell wasn’t/isn’t the only one in this boat. Petraeus promoted his agenda by gathering around him a group of people who, in many cases, were united more by the fact that their ambition exceeded their integrity than by any professional qualifications or intellectual heft. I’d name names… but frankly I’ve burned enough bridges on this score in the past. (If you really want, you can search my website for “Petraeus” and “COIN” for more details.)

Now, the generous interpretation is that Petraeus is just a vain man, who likes surrounding himself with attractive and pliable sycophants. I think that is part of it. But I also think much of this was planned, an information operation if you will.

Petraeus deliberately sought to woo a range of folks, compromising them with access, and using them in ways that blurred lines of professional integrity. Just as it isn’t clear what Broadwell was in this-a grad student? Reporter? Publicist? Officer? Public intellectual?-it isn’t clear what, say, Tom Ricks is. Well, that’s not true… we know that Ricks is an ignorant blowhard, but I mean aside from that. But this blurring of lines, this use of “reporters” and “independent analysts” to promote Petraeus personally and his policy preferences, was a key factor in both the Iraqi and Afghan “surges.”

Spencer Ackerman writes honestly about the issue here (How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus):

When it came out that CIA Director David Petraeus had an affair with his hagiographer, I got punked. “It seems so obvious in retrospect. How could you @attackerman?” tweeted @bitteranagram, complete with a link to a florid piece I wrote for this blog when Petraeus retired from the Army last year. (“The gold standard for wartime command” is one of the harsher judgments in the piece.) I was so blind to Petraeus, and my role in the mythmaking that surrounded his career, that I initially missed @bitteranagram’s joke.

But it’s a good burn. Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus.

Ackerman is a good man. I wish others had his level of honesty and introspection.

I know this all seems “inside baseball.” But it had real consequences. Thousands dead and billions wasted. Careers promoted and destroyed in ways that will affect national security deliberations for decades.

Worse, Petraeus’ legacy on civil-military relations is likely to endure. He showed how easy it is for a military leader to act as a policy maker, to wage a deliberate campaign of manipulation and propaganda against the American public.

Petraeus’ conduct since 2004 has been profoundly anti-democratic. He’s been a cancer on civil-military relations. My main hope now is that instead of focusing on salacious details, we can instead shine a harsh light on the “age of Petraeus” and its destructive legacy.

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