The tragedy of David Petraeus

The tragedy of David Petraeus

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past five hours, you’ve probably heard by now that David Petraeus — perhaps the most universally admired person in American public life — suddenly resigned as director of the CIA for, as he told agency staffers in a message Friday, "engaging in an extramarital affair."

Slate’s Fred Kaplan reports that his paramour was none other than Paula Broadwell, the co-author of a highly flattering biography of the former general, All In: The Education of David Petraeus. (FP tried to contact Broadwell via several channels Friday, but she did not respond.)

According to the AP, the affair came to light during an investigation by the FBI, presumably related to its counterintelligence function. (Other accounts are offering more salacious details, but I can’t vouch for the quality of the reporting.)

As recently as Monday, Broadwell published an article titled "General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living"on the DailyBeast‘s website. Rule No. 1: "Lead by example from the front of the formation." Rule No. 5: "We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear­ view mirrors—drive on and avoid making them again."

What’s clear is that Broadwell, a veteran whose book began as a dissertation project, was starstruck by her subject.

In January, when her book, co-authored with Washington Post editor Vernon Loeb, came out,  Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings ripped it as "such blatant, unabashed propaganda, it’s as if the general has given up pretending there’s a difference between the press and his own public relations team." When Broadwell appeared on the Daily Show to promote the book, she joked, "He can turn water into bottled water" and noted "he is a very high-energy person." They spent a lot of time together on runs, a favorite Petraeus activity. She said Petraeus had "no dirty secrets."

In her book, Broadwell describes how she first met Petraeus in 2006, when he was still a lieutenant general, at a dinner arranged by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. "I introduced myself," she writes, "and told him about my research interests; he gave me his card and offered to put me in touch with other researchers and service members working on the same issues. … I took full advantage of his open-door policy to seek insight and share perspectives."

Broadwell was also an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy, via Tom Ricks’s blog. In one post, she lauded Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy; in another, she wrote, "Gen. David H. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency guidance calls on coalition forces to be first with the truth."

This is a huge story, obviously, and the Twitterverse is going wild with off-color jokes. I’m sure more salacious details are going to come out, and we’ll no doubt learn in more detail why Petraeus felt he had to resign. Some will say he shouldn’t have. Ricks writes: "Petraeus is retired from the military. If the affair happened back when he was on active duty, it is part of the past. And there is nothing illegal about civilians having affairs." On the other hand, it’s obviously not a good thing for your CIA director to be subject to possible blackmail.

Still, Petraeus’s downfall is a huge loss for the United States. Not only was he one of the country’s top strategic thinkers, he was also one of the few public figures revered by all sides of the political spectrum for his dedication and good judgment. He salvaged two disastrous wars, for two very different presidents. He would have been a useful check on groupthink inside the Obama administration — an independent voice for a White House often accused of being insular and one-dimensional. And if anyone could have restored confidence in the CIA after Benghazi, it would have been him.

Petraeus’s exit leaves a bitter taste. We all make mistakes. Here’s hoping he makes a comeback.