- Arthur Herman
Even Brad Thor couldn’t come up with a juicier storyline. FBI agents discover secret e-mails proving that the CIA director, a revered war hero and possible future presidential candidate, is having an affair with his biographer-turned- femme fatale. He then resigns just days before he’s supposed to give public testimony on a growing scandal that reaches all the way to the White House.
Only this is fact, not fiction. Gen. David Petraeus’ resignation last Friday stunned Washington and shattered his reputation, probably for good. Unanswered questions swirl around this case. The initial claim that the FBI stumbled on the affair back in May while investigating complaints about cyberbullying is already unraveling, as is the claim that the president was never told about it until last week.
But one thing is clear: Not since the dismissal of Douglas MacArthur has an American military hero risen so high only to fall so far. What happened reveals a lot about a corrupt Washington culture — and a man whose military genius is not matched by mature judgment.
In late 2003, David Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne in Iraq, where we were losing the fight against terrorism. Chaos was spreading in Iraq, as was disillusionment with the war at home. Our strategy of focusing on hunting down bad guys wasn’t working: A rising tide of Sunni-Shia conflict was creating terrorists faster than we could kill them.
From his base around Mosul, Gen. Petraeus tried a different approach, winning the hearts and minds of the locals and concentrating on providing security, as well as roads, schools and hospitals. The strategy of “clear and hold” worked; Mosul became an oasis of calm in a country on the verge of civil war.
After leaving the 101st to train Iraqi soldiers, Petraeus pulled together a team of thinkers to draw up a strategy based on successful anti-guerrilla campaigns of the past and what Marines were doing to pacify Iraq’s Anbar province — dubbed counterinsurgency.
Petraeus boldly approached President Bush in late 2006 and convinced him that, with some extra troops, the strategy would save the war in Iraq.Bush overruled his closest advisers and gave Petraeus overall command.
The rest is history — or was, until President Obama came to office.
Petraeus had to fight not only the terrorists but also many skeptics in his own ranks, as well as in Congress, where arm-chair strategists like Sens. Harry Reid and Hillary Rodham Clinton all but accused Petraeus of lying when he reported his counterinsurgency “surge” strategy was working.
Yet, in less than two years, Petraeus had turned the war around, and in January 2009, Iraqis held their provincial elections for the first time in virtual peace. By then Petraeus had been promoted to command of all American forces in the Middle East.
Petraeus left at a crucial time. As head of the multinational forces there, he could have used his prestige with Iraqis, who admiringly called him King David, and his unparalleled knowledge of conditions on the ground to shape what might have been a stronger, more stable peace for the country — as well as a lasting American military presence to deter Iran.
Petraeus did what he could from his new post, including working to get Afghan and Pakistani authorities to cooperate against the Taliban, but Obama had other plans for a man whose skill and prestige he needed but whom he also saw as a possible political rival.
When Obama clashed with the general then in charge of Afghanistan in 2010, he persuaded Petraeus to take over. Once again, Petraeus turned the situation around — until Obama suddenly announced that Petraeus was leaving Afghanistan to head the CIA.
The move was inexplicable — like removing Dwight Eisenhower shortly after D-Day to head the OSS instead — except as a ploy to keep Petraeus from getting credit for a victory in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.Now, a year later, we’re getting neither: Iraq is once again degenerating into an al Qaeda haven, and Obama will, in effect, abandon the Afghans to the Taliban by 2014.
Meanwhile, David Petraeus was sidelined to a job he was neither trained nor suited for, as his indiscretions with his biographer-turned-mistress have shown.
Now he’s almost certainly going to be made the scapegoat for the intelligence failures in Benghazi, as well — while we’re left with two lost wars, a major scandal and a broken hero whose talents were squandered and achievements tarnished.
Arthur Herman is the author of “Freedom’s Forge: How America Produced Victory in World War II.”