Daniel W. Drezner

Scandal, trust and the military

Scandal, trust and the military

Look, let’s be blunt — as a responsible foreign policy blogger, I should be trying to divert your attention away from the tawdriness that is the David Petraeus scandal.  There’s no shortage of other interesting stuff happening in the world.  Things like Argentina’s slow-moving debt debacle, or the discord between the EU and IMF over Greece, or even the possibility of the United States overtaking Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer

The thing is, I can’t, I just can’t.  I’m weak, and the way this scandal has metastasized is friggin’ incredible.  The best summary of where things stand right now comes from Ace of Spades’ Gabriel Malor: 

Jill Kelley, the woman who was (allegedly) threatened by Gen. Petraeus’s squeeze Paula Broadwell and who (apparently) started the FBI investigation that led to Petraeus’ ouster, who went to the FBI for help after the threats and then (allegedly) had a relationship with the FBI agent in charge of her own case, who (allegedly) sent her shirtless pics of himself, also (apparently, allegedly) had "compromising" communications with Gen. John Allen, the Big Damn Commander of our war effort in Afghanistan.

Yeah, that’s about where we are now, and I’m afraid of checking my Twitter feed because there might have been new developments. 

Look, America’s foreign policy community is gonna be transfixed on this for a spell.  Because it’s got that car-crash quality that means it is just impossible to look away.  This is the kind of scandal that causes the Daily Beast’s writing style to go so over the top that it actually published the following sentence:  "Broadwell may be able to run a six-minute mile with Petraeus, but Kelley looks like a woman who lets the guys do all the running—and in her direction."  I’m surprised they didn’t embed a whip sound at the end of that sentence. 

And that’s the interesting thing if one steps back for a second.  To repeat a theme, the American people by and large don’t care much about foreign policy and national security.  But, based on my deep immersion into supermarket checkout literature, they do appear to be very interested in tawdry sex scandals and reality television.  Well, this scandal has copious amounts of this — plus, you know, power. 

So unlike, say, questions about drone warfare or counterterrorism policy or homeland security or civil liberties, Americans will pay attention to this stuff.  Which is interesting, because over the past decade the military has been the one institution to inspire significant amounts of trust in Americans.  The less that the public trusts the military, the less that they will trust what the military is doing.  And as Thom Shanker notes in the New York Times, this scandal might affect that trust: 

[A] worrisomely large number of senior officers have been investigated and even fired for poor judgment, malfeasance and sexual improprieties or sexual violence — and that is just in the last year….

Long list of scandas involving top brass]

The episodes have prompted concern that something may be broken, or at least fractured, across the military’s culture of leadership. Some wonder whether its top officers have forgotten the lessons of Bathsheba: The crown of command should not be worn with arrogance, and while rank has its privileges, remember that infallibility and entitlement are not among them.

And this doesn’t even get into other scandals at  various homeland security agencies *cough* Secret Servivce *cough*.

The military and intelligence communities have been doing a lot of things over the past decade that fall outside the bounds of traditional American foreign policy practices.  I’m not saying all of these things are bad — it’s a new century, new kinds of threats, and so forth.  But most Americans have passively gifted these agencies a lot of goodwill for them to do what they want.  I wonder whether a silly sex scandal will change all that.