David and Paula

The Petraeus affair may be over, as far as the media circus is concerned. But its baleful aftereffects linger on.

ISAF via Getty Images
ISAF via Getty Images

While the spate of ink over the scandal that toppled former CIA director David Petraeus has abated a bit, there is little sign that the public significance of the episode has penetrated. Both Petraeus and Paula Broadwell let it be known through surrogates that they "screwed up," that they are personally "devastated," and that they are working to repair the damage done to their families. But I have not heard either of them or any of us for that matter — members of the national security community — weigh our public responsibilities in the drama and its impact on institutions we claim to cherish.

Plenty of people were pleased to consider themselves acquaintances of Dave Petraeus. I have known him for about four years; we corresponded frequently about Afghanistan, and I served in his Kabul headquarters on loan from the Joint Staff during his transition into command in the summer of 2010. While real affection clearly infused some of these relationships, most were also transactional. People made professional mileage on their links to Petraeus; he used them to get his views out. They served him in one way or another; he rewarded them with positions, connections, or implicit endorsements.

Many of the same people consider themselves part of the national security community — they make careers on their avowed expertise. But membership in such groups, with the stature and privileges it confers, entails responsibilities.

I can name a dozen people who knew things did not look right between Petraeus and Broadwell at the international military headquarters in Kabul in the first half of 2011, when Broadwell was working on her biography of Petraeus. It almost didn’t matter what was actually going on behind the closed door of that office. The pair spent too many hours in there, too late at night, the public affairs officer sent away. It is difficult to describe how dramatically such behavior clashes with the rigorously professional demeanor expected in a military headquarters, especially a deployed one. And that summer, when they returned from Kabul, the charged vibe between the two remained on display in Washington.

In a community, friends — and even military subordinates — bear some collective responsibility for the behavior of their friends or superiors, as uncomfortable as it may be to intervene. Even more importantly, those who claim a stake in national security policy ought to bear some collective responsibility for the national interest. That national interest, if not Petraeus’s welfare, should have outweighed any reticence. Yet none of us, that I know of — including me — asked him a tough question.

Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for this debacle and the costs it inflicted not just on two families, but on hundreds of serving and former members of the military, on the standards underpinning the institution, on U.S. national security decision-making and public integrity, must lie with the two adults who acted with such breathtaking recklessness. But it is unclear whether either of them has taken that responsibility to heart.

Prompted by her recently-hired public relations firm, Broadwell sent out an appeal late last month to respected contacts, asking them to talk to Fox News or other reporters about "the Paula [they] know." Her words of regret in one such e-mail for what "has occurred" don’t even span a full sentence. "Much," she quickly adds, "has been spun and twisted out of control in the press."

Many who did encounter her — as I did beginning in 2009 — knew a Paula who was undeniably intelligent and aggressive, but whose ambition outshone her qualifications, a Paula who consistently fell below the standards of the communities whose credentials she wished to appropriate. Her vaunted Harvard Kennedy School master’s degree was supposed to be a Ph.D., but her academic work was substandard and she was asked to leave the program. Her biography of Petraeus — largely penned by a coauthor — was considered by no one in either the editing or the national security fields to be a creditable work of narrative non-fiction, nor certainly journalism.

In the e-mail chain from her PR advisors (left intact beneath her plea) is a remark about "the ‘sickeningly sexist’ coverage" she has suffered to date. Broadwell would do better not to play that card. For she was the one who — often arrayed in inappropriate clothes — exploited her gender to gain an entree to people and venues that her credentials could not have secured.

Sadly, it worked.

Organizations that would never have given her a glance had she not been connected to Petraeus welcomed her once she was. Only her access allowed her to command the generous book advance she received — for something she was unable to write herself. Invitations cascaded in: to a high-level panel at the very Kennedy School that had thrown her out a few years before, to the prestigious Aspen Security Forum, to the annual dinner honoring the forerunner of the CIA, or to a "major conference" on Afghan women and children. "Many members of the UNGA and int’l community, including former POTUSes, PMs, heads of state, and current foreign ministers will be present in the audience," she enthused in a September e-mail, which highlighted her membership on the executive board of such establishments as Women in International Security.

What exactly qualified Broadwell to travel in such circles? What motivation prompted so many of us to fawn over her this way? Why did serious reporters and think-tankers so easily set aside their critical analysis? These are questions the national security community might well ask as we consider the significance of this event.

Not that Petraeus was an innocent bystander. He promoted her into this environment and personally ushered her into an inner circle that was increasingly adulatory and resistant to critical views. He, no less than the rest of us, should weigh the quality of the character judgment such a lapse implies. Senior leaders like Petraeus appoint subordinates; they engage in hair-trigger interactions with hard-to-read counterparts. Character judgment matters.

Moreover, the suggestion that this was a purely private affair is inaccurate. Petraeus allowed it to spill over into his professional time and space, and to absorb resources that belonged in the fight. In Kabul, for example, Broadwell went along on so many "battlefield circulations" — Petraeus’s trips to visit subordinate commands aboard helicopters where seats were scarce — that one staff member asked her if she could stay behind just occasionally, to leave room for officers who were actually working the issues to be discussed. "The general wants me along," the officer told me she replied.

When people are caught in an extramarital affair, and the imaginary world they have been avidly constructing abruptly implodes, leaving them flailing to right themselves amid the sharp-edged rubble, their first instinct is often to try to salvage something, anything. So perhaps Petraeus’s energetic spinning in the days following his exposure was to be expected — especially given his trademark practice of working aggressively to control messages that reflected on him. In this case, the effort was particularly transparent, since quotes from various friends and former staff members kept featuring the same vocabulary.

What was most disappointing was the absence in these statements by surrogates of any expression of remorse for the impact the pair’s actions had on the institution that made them: the U.S. military. While a jolt of schadenfreude may have traversed some at news of the scandal, for others it has been deeply troubling. Troops — whose bravery both Petraeus and Broadwell have often applauded — are in the line of fire right now, many with their worldview badly dented. Two senior officers I know have spoken of their conversations with rattled company and battalion commanders. Many looked up to Petraeus as the ultimate role model. Others have seen their careers wrecked for much smaller lapses. Damage may be particularly great at the pair’s alma mater, West Point. There and in our other military academies, young cadets or midshipmen are struggling, with perhaps more difficulty than before, to absorb lessons on the responsibility that goes with public service.

Repair after a personal crisis of these dimensions can lead to profound growth, but it requires a realization of what went wrong. For the moment, I don’t see that either Petraeus or Broadwell, or members of the community that cosseted them, have made that realization. None has yet quite understood that this drama is not all about them.

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