Commentary Magazine


Petraeus Betrayed the Team

I had meant to write this a couple days ago, but as I was doing so, the motherboard on my 3-month-old laptop died. It’s fixed now, and so I’ve gotten my work back, and I think some of these points remain relevant, even as the story moves on. Jonathan Tobin has argued that Petraeus was right to resign, and I largely agree with his excellent points, but want to add one: I’m not so concerned about how unfair it is that more senior leaders like Bill Clinton not only cheated on their wives, but survived politically with even greater popularity. A military officer like Petraeus should be held to a higher standard than even the commander-in-chief.

Every officer and his or her spouse are a team. At every level of David Petraeus’s career, Holly Petraeus was his often unacknowledged partner not only in terms of personal support, but also in career. Officers’ wives are active not only in the military community, but also in the entertaining and diplomacy, which form an important part of any flag officers’ duties. Had Holly Petraeus not been so capable, her husband may not have achieved such a rapid rise. For an officer to betray his wife reflects not only a personal failing, which is more the business of the Petraeus family and few others, but also the betrayal of a long-standing, professional teammate.

Max Boot is right to highlight the contributions Petraeus made to the United States and its security. He messed up badly in Iraq when he commanded the 101st Airborne based out of Mosul, but he learned from his mistakes. Certainly, history will thank the general for his subsequent success. But it is important to remember that Petraeus did not achieve his successes alone.

While on one level, Holly Petraeus was one partner, Petraeus was also part of another team: Many of his colleagues—Ray Odierno, Peter Chiarelli, and others—are as responsible, if not more, for the successes the U.S. Army achieved. The major difference between these men and Petraeus is that his colleagues did not spend nearly as much time cultivating the press or think-tankers, or giving public speeches in Washington and New York to be seen and reported upon. That is not to diminish Petraeus; outreach has value. But the hagiography which Petraeus long cultivated necessarily diminished some of his equally talented peers and so could, perhaps, suggest a subtle betrayal of team spirit.