I had just finished playing basketball with some colleagues when I saw a text on my phone from Niloufer Siddiqui, my co-editor-in-chief at The Smoke-Filled Room: “Petraeus just resigned.” My response, in complete ignorance and shock at this point, was simply “Benghazi?” Almost two weeks later, it seems that one of the few things we know with certainty is that it was not, in fact, Benghazi-related. This has not stopped talking heads from asking questions that seem to have irrelevant answers or refuse to accept relevant answers to more pertinent questions. However, this should subside sooner rather than later. Or so one hopes. Indeed, we face far more critical questions in light of this affair, the answers to which are much more important to how we think about national security policy in this country.
First and foremost, are national intelligence officials different from the military and other civilians? The answer here appears, unfortunately, fairly straightforward. Members of the national intelligence community must take care not to share sensitive information with those that do not have the requisite clearance. It is this that distinguishes them from other civilians and, to a certain extent, our men and women in uniform. If it is true for those working entry-level jobs at Langley, it should be true for the CIA Director. Or so the logic goes.
But should Petraeus have resigned? Good generals are a precious commodity and it seems like a waste to have Petraeus resign over something potentially so minor. Again, it is not clear to what extent national security was or will ever be compromised by this affair. While I agree that potential security breaches must be kept under close watch, it seems as if the administration moved awfully fast without a lot of information available in this case. I am not entirely sure that Petraeus was comfortable at the CIA–a general without a war. Moreover, I believe that the policies that have come out of Langley over the past year or so, particularly the drone program, deserve greater scrutiny than both Benghazi or with whom the Director was sleeping. But it is not evident why we should excommunicate Petraeus based on something presumably apolitical.
The no-drama Obama administration is notoriously scandal-averse and excellent at cleaning up messes quickly. And, indeed, the Petraeus affair could potentially have reflected very poorly on this administration. However, to blame the President for accepting the resignation of a talented military leader would be unfair. After all, the Obama administration’s actions in scandal containment are conditioned entirely by what the public considers a scandal. This, in turn, begs the question: why are we so concerned with Petraeus’s personal life? Is it truly because there might be a national security breach or is it because, as with Anthony Wiener and countless others before him, it suggests a moral failing that we Americans deem unacceptable from our public figures?
The idea of an absolute morality that distinguishes our leaders from the rest of us is, of course, a bit ridiculous. We are all human, after all. In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik tied in this element of the affair with the central lesson of Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain: we are all “flawed” in the same way.
Presumably, it is a bad idea for spies to have embarrassing secrets that other spies might learn—and what goes for the smaller spies should go for the big spy—and so the resignation of General Petraeus may have been necessary. But the rest really did seem to be nobody’s business but the General’s and his family’s. If there is a small truth to cherish here, it lies in the reminder that Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner and all the other earlier, undecorated sinners were not heated by undignified lusts because they were baby boomers or Democrats, or because they lacked the moral core of real men making real decisions, or because they had spent too much time on Twitter, or whatever the latest explanation for self-destructive sexual behavior is. The truth is that the force which through the not so green fuse drives all our flowers, and much else besides—the force of wanting that can cause women of substance to send pestering e-mails, leaving distinguished generals caught in the middle—is the force of life.
But, for some reason, we expect more from our public officials We expect moral perfection. We gloss over this by attempting to bind Petraeus to a (potential) national security breach. In reality, we care less about the fact that he may have had compromising secrets than the fact that Petraeus was not, as we thought, perfect. And, sadly, the imperfection of the man seems to matter much more than the imperfection of the policies he helped craft. Perhaps more importantly, even as Petraeus’s time at the CIA ends abruptly, these policies resume, unscrutinized by public discourse.
For more of his thoughts on the Petraeus’ affair, follow William on Twitter.