Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Obama may find silver lining in the fall of Petraeus

Few would describe the resignation of David Petraeus in such tawdry circumstances as anything other than a tragedy - for himself, for his family and for the other families involved.

The retired US general had been head of the CIA for just 18 months; he was one of America's most decorated commanders; been spoken of as a future president.

His 38-year marriage to Holly was held up as an example to American military couples.

However, prominent Americans who allow themselves to become marriage paragons clearly invite trouble (think Bill 'n' Hill).

For all the raunchiness of Hollywood and the permissiveness of New York, American culture has a deeply conformist and puritanical strain - perhaps even more so for those in public life. How else to explain why another accomplished general, Dwight Eisenhower, conducted a long affair with impunity, why JFK's promiscuity was no bar to his holding the highest office, while Clinton was impeached for covering up his relations with Monica Lewinsky?

Politics, double standards and the vicissitudes of the moral climate all determine the official response to adultery and there have been plenty of Americans arguing that Petraeus did not need to fall on his sword for a short affair both parties accepted was over.

President Obama's first instinct, too, it seems, was to reject the proffered resignation as honourable, but unnecessary.

In the end, Obama's hand was probably forced by the position Petraeus held. For a senior general to take a mistress is one thing; when that general is head of the CIA, it is quite another.

During the Cold War, the chief risk would have been blackmail, but any behaviour that exposes personal weakness inevitably makes the perpetrator vulnerable. Obama was right to let him go.

But there are other reasons why Obama may have little reason to regret the loss. Although the two had a working relationship during Obama's first term, they never saw eye-to-eye. Petraeus had come to prominence under George Bush, attaining influence that exceeded his military rank. When he spoke in public, he betrayed a certain vanity and arrogance.

Such vices sat uncomfortably with his reputation as a 'soldier's soldier'. He also showed a measure of impatience with those he saw as too dim to understand strategy.

The US 'surge' in Iraq was costly in both Iraqi and American lives, but it turned the tide of the insurgency. America's gratitude was understandable.

Petraeus had extricated the US and its then president from an adventure that seemed on its way to becoming a second Vietnam.

Once in the White House, however, Obama had his sights not just on withdrawal from Iraq, but on trying to win what he saw as the more significant conflict in Afghanistan.

After months of dithering and several returns to the drawing board, Obama agreed to an Afghan 'surge', as recommended by Petraeus, and it fell to the general to implement the policy.

It was never obvious, however, either that an Iraq-style 'surge' would work in Afghanistan, or that Obama truly believed in it - hence the delays and the fact that it was wound down soon after it started. Indeed, had Obama had more experience as President, he might have had the courage to follow the diametrically opposite advice coming from his ambassador in Kabul, a former military man, Karl Eikenberry. If he had, an earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan may have been possible. In snubbing Petraeus, though, he may have created a powerful enemy in Washington.

It is too soon to decide how much of the respect paid to Petraeus as a military genius is deserved and how much reflects canny political presentation. It is too soon to say whether his tenure helped or hindered the CIA.

But his downfall and personal tragedy, give a more confident President a chance to trust his own judgment. His security policy could be all the better for that.

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