Petraeus’ Political Seppuku


On the Friday after Election Day, November 9, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General David H. Petraeus announced his immediate resignation and admitted to an extramarital affair (with his biographer Paula Broadwell), which had been exposed (officially by an unrelated FBI investigation, privately others had known of the affair earlier including perhaps Holly Knowlton, Petraeus’ wife of 37 years).

Many see the Petraeus affair as an example of politically counterproductive and socially immature American puritanism. The popular counter to this criticism is that Petraeus had opened himself to blackmail, which represented too dangerous a risk to national security, making his departure necessary. Others suspect there were hidden motives and agendas to Petraeus’ downfall, which were covered over by the public drama of a sexual scandal being paid for with honorable military resignation. The following comments pursue this second possibility.

I have the impression that the US “consulate” in Benghazi was a CIA observation post under the cover of a State Department facility, and that the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, took the heat for the fatal attack (four American consular employees died) on September 11, to shield the CIA specifically and the Obama Administration generally. At that time, Hillary Clinton had the highest national approval rating among high-profile US government personalities and potential presidential “candidates,” Democratic or Republican, so it must have been estimated that she could probably survive the political hit and put it well behind her by 2016. This all saved Petraeus from censure for the Benghazi disaster.

Having an affair “at the office” inevitably distracts you from your work; in a job like CIA director “the office” has a very broad definition (it encases you always and everywhere). Was Petraeus paying all the attention he should have to the configuration, defense and manning of the Benghazi consulate-operations center, and to the data gathered by it? Or, were the data gathering and interfacing functions of covert diplomacy (spying) being sub-contracted to the State Department: Chris Stevens, Hillary Clinton’s appointee?

Perhaps Petraeus, the Army general, did what generals do best even as head of the CIA, focus on the military operations of the agency (the robotic air force: drones, and the counterinsurgency or semi-covert commando type military campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan), and left the reconnaissance, intelligence and infiltration work in Libya to their State Department paper-shuffling/networking office-worker type contractors: Chris Stevens and the State Department.

Congressional investigations into the Benghazi consulate attack, in September-October, and security vulnerability (paramour) investigations now would inevitably expose too much sensitive CIA activity, and too many embarrassing management errors (probably compounded by inattention). Also, objectively, even the drone war and counterinsurgency campaigns Petraeus had designed and supervised were not succeeding politically (at searing humanitarian cost).

Petraeus had accumulated too much baggage, he had become a liability to the top political careerists, he had to go. Petraeus probably remembered his Roman, samurai and military history, and decided to take control of his unavoidable exit, by making it an immediate and quick one. Obama returned the favor by his prompt permission for his Drone-War Praetor’s career seppuku,  so Petraeus could obtain an expeditiously merciful release. I doubt Hillary was anguished by the departure.

In Washington D.C., policies are personified. One thinks of Elizabeth Warren and financial industry regulation, George W. Bush (and more recently Mitt Romney) and tax reductions for the wealthy, and so on. David Petraeus boosted his career during congressional testimony in 2007 by presenting as successful his command efforts in Iraq as part of “the surge” of US troops there, and he went on to become the face of US counterinsurgency policy as applied since.

Now, Petraeus’ departure from the Obama Administration can be taken as an opportunity not only to reevaluate the management of the CIA, but to adjust its priorities, and to reexamine the current drone war and counterinsurgency policies. Perhaps these policies will remain static with a new manager appointed to supervise them (since the foreign policy objectives have not changed), but then again, perhaps the need to appoint a replacement Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) will be used as an opportunity to initiate some new and diplomatic rather than military methods of conducting US policy in Central Asia.

Manuel García, Jr. is a retired nuclear test physicist/engineer and now an occasional writer on energy and society. His e-mail is mangogarcia@att.net

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