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How the Mighty Have Fallen

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

". . . count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last." -- Sophocles, "Oedipus Rex"

He was America's most honored general, and for good reason. From West Point to Princeton, the classroom to the battlefield, theory to practice, David Petraeus had studied and then acted on what he'd learned. He rewrote the book (FM 3-24) on counter-insurgency warfare, or at least oversaw its compilation and culmination.


In the Army's and the country's hour of desperation in Iraq, when others were ready to accept failure there and call it statesmanship, when master strategist Joe Biden was advocating that we just leave and let that bloody mess of a country vivisect itself into three ethnic parts, this four-star general had a different idea: try something new.

It was called the Surge, an infusion not only of a new troops but a new attitude--working with Iraqis on the ground, building alliances, recruiting new forces who would fight for a better, more stable and democratic future for their reunited country.

Naturally, the general was hooted down by those who knew only that they knew better. Their calculation: Defeatism is always the best course when defeat becomes undeniable. In a phrase that will always stay with her, Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York who would go on to become secretary of state, said it would take "a willing suspension of disbelief" to believe this upstart general. The senator from Illinois, a political comer named Barack Obama, hastened to agree. He, too, scoffed at this Surge the general was proposing.

But a president named George W. Bush had faith in this general and his new approach, and what the armed forces of the United States could do, even adopt new ideas. And the Surge worked -- dramatically. The tide was turned. David Petraeus, his command, and Iraqis and Americans together snatched victory -- or at least success -- from the jaws of a defeat that had looked inevitable.


There is no misfortune that cannot lead to change for the better. In this case, it led to David Petraeus' being recognized as both the visionary and practical-minded leader he was. The same strategy would later be approved by its former critic-in-chief, President Obama, in Afghanistan.

No, it hasn't proven a complete success there, being denied the complete support that General Petraeus had requested. But the man's reputation as both seer and leader had been established on both fronts, and he was a natural pick to head the country's Central Intelligence Agency, where he lasted until his abrupt resignation last week.

Why did he have to go? His shame-faced announcement to the stunned agency he headed told the story: "After being married for 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extra-marital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours." An organization in charge of the country's secrets and its secret exploits.

. .

His indiscretion affected not just the general and his family, but opened a security breach with unpredictable consequences that no intelligence agency can afford. Indeed, the general's affair was uncovered in the course of the FBI's investigation into an unrelated question: Was someone else using one of his personal email accounts? Once the investigation began, it uncovered his affair. The End -- of his brilliant career, of his outstanding service to his country, of an untarnished reputation -- was unavoidable from that moment.


The general's predecessor in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had to resign after making some indiscreet comments about the president and commander-in-chief. And now David Petraeus realized there was no honorable course but for him to submit his resignation in these embarrassing circumstances. And the president had to reluctantly agree. His resignation took effect immediately.

. .

No doubt the general and his lover had hoped, like so many involved in such affairs, that theirs would remain a private matter, only between the two of them, and that no one else would know, or be hurt. David Petraeus wouldn't be the first, and he surely won't be the last, who fails to appreciate the whole interconnected web of family and friends, duties and joys, that each of us constructs over a lifetime. And that by jeopardizing just one strand of that tangled web, we jeopardize the whole.

None of us lives alone, yet too often men pretend they can betray just one connection, ever so discreetly, and the whole web, at home and at work, in public and in private, will remain intact, unaffected. It doesn't. Betrayal ripples. Everything is affected. Everybody is hurt, disappointed. Especially the man at the center of this web of interconnections he has taken so lightly.

. .

Imagine the reaction of Barack Obama, returning to the White House the morning after his triumphal re-election speech in Chicago, to be greeted by the news that, oh, yes, Mr. President, your CIA director has just submitted his resignation. What?! Talk about having to push the reset button. Life is just full of surprises, including surprising disappointments in the best of men.


. .

It's an old story with an old moral: Even the best of men may prove only a man. The country would gladly forgive the general's indiscretion. His place in American military history and his lasting influence over the country's military strategy will remain assured. But can the general forgive himself? That is his next great challenge, and one he'll have to work out by and with himself.

Forgiveness cannot change what has happened in the past, but it does enhance the future. With gratitude for all the things David Petraeus has done for his country, it will wish him well.

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