Stephen M. Walt

The real lessons of l’affaire Petraeus

As you might expect, the unfolding saga of the Petraeus/Broadwell/Kelley, etc. affair has been a popular topic of conversation during breaks here at the World Economic Forum meetings. (The other fun topic is speculation about who will get top posts in Obama’s second term). Here with a few additional comments. For what it’s worth, I ...

ISAF via Getty Images
ISAF via Getty Images

As you might expect, the unfolding saga of the Petraeus/Broadwell/Kelley, etc. affair has been a popular topic of conversation during breaks here at the World Economic Forum meetings. (The other fun topic is speculation about who will get top posts in Obama’s second term). Here with a few additional comments.

For what it’s worth, I couldn’t care less about the private lives of public figures, although I suppose I would worry some if I thought they were spending hours canoodling when they were supposed to be winning a war or conducting the public’s business. But in general, I think Americans hold public figures far too accountable for their sex lives, and insufficiently accountable for their actual performance while in office. The only group that is even less accountable are pundits (see under: Weekly Standard, Fox News, etc.).

That said, I think there are two obvious implications of these revelations.

First, even if Petraeus eventually gets somewhat rehabilitated and doesn’t disappear from public life, these events will puncture the image of a superhuman general that he has carefully cultivated over the years. More importantly, this embarrassing personal failure will open the door to a more toughminded and dispassionate look at his actual record in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his brief tenure as CIA head. Indeed, that process has already started, as these pieces by Michael Hastings, Robert Wright, Michael Cohen, and Paul Pillar show.  

And the key thing to keep in mind with respect to both wars is that the United States lost. In Iraq, the "surge" was at best only part of the reason that violence declined after 2006, even though Petraeus and other counterinsurgency mavens tried to spin it that way. More importantly, all the hype about the surge cannot conceal the fact that United States spend over a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, and ended up creating an unstable state riven by sectarian tensions, and at least partly aligned with … Iran. No good reason for a ticker tape parade there.

In Afghanistan, Petraeus and the other generals managed to sell an inexperienced commander-in-chief a bill of goods about how escalating the war would break the back of the Taliban and permit us to achieve victory. Now, some four years later, we are no closer to a decisive victory and the Afghan surge is increasingly recognized to be a fig leaf designed to give us an excuse for a long-overdue withdrawal. The expenditure of hundreds of billions of more dollars and hundreds of soldiers’ lives did not produce a strategically meaningful different in the outcome, and one wishes that Petraeus had given Obama rather different advice back in 2009.

To recognize these failures is not to blame these outcomes solely on Petraeus or the military, of course; U.S. civilian leaders deserve a lot of the blame too. My point is simply that it’s not just Petraeus’ personal reputation that will be tarnished by these revelations; his image as a successful military commander is also going to suffer.

Second, this whole episode reminds us of the corrupt and incestual relationship that exists throughout the national security establishment, to include lots of people in the media and commentariat. As I’ve written before, the excessive deference — indeed, veneration — often given the U.S. military is not healthy, because it encourages both journalists and academics to suck up to powerful and charismatic generals instead of treating them as public servants who need to be aggressively challenged. On this point, see these intelligent comments by Tara McKelvey and Andrew Sullivan.

The point is not to tear our generals down for sport; it is rather to subject them to the same critical scrutiny that anyone doing the public’s business should receive. The last thing the military should get is a free pass from the media, academia, or the other designated watchdogs in our society, and the arc of David Petraeus’ career shows the hazards that arise when reporters, pundits, and other people check their critical faculties at the door.

Third, as the inimitable Glenn Greenwald argues as only he can, this affair is also Exhibit A for those believe we have a Surveillance State run amok. Money quotation (h/t Sullivan:

"So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell’s physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime — at most, they had a case of "cyber-harassment" more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people — and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court."

But if those are the key lessons, the lingering question is whether anything will change. Will reporters become less cozy and more confrontational in dealing with the Pentagon? I wouldn’t bet on that. Will we provide citizens (and public officials) with real protections for their online privacy? I rather doubt it, especially when we don’t even know exactly what information the government might be collecting on us. If this scandal is like a lot of others, in short, it will have more impact on the lives of the protagonists that it does on public policy.

Full disclosure: As some people may know, I was the third member of Petraeus’ dissertation committee at Princeton back in the 1980s. I was added near the end of the process when one of his other advisors left for another university. As I recall, it was a pretty good dissertation, but I’ve had no contact with Petraeus in over twenty years. In a slightly bizarrre coincidence, I was also one of Paula Broadwell’s advisors during her time in the Kennedy School’s Ph.D. program, but have not seen her since she left the program some years ago. I have no knowledge of or insight into their personal dealings, apart from what I’ve read in various news accounts.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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