As I wrote on Friday, I agree with Max Boot that the resignation of David Petraeus is a tragedy. That such a distinguished career should end on such a tawdry note is appalling, especially since Petraeus’s place in our military history ought to guarantee him the nation’s highest accolades rather than to be subjected to the sort of tabloid scrutiny that is usually reserved for the denizens of reality television shows. Yet as much as I regret the circumstances, I disagree with those like Max who take the position that the former general’s resignation was unnecessary. Petraeus stumbled badly when he engaged in extramarital activity that wound up involving him in a bizarre harassment case that was investigated by the FBI. But he was right to assume that the only honorable course of action once it was uncovered was for him to leave the CIA.
Whenever public figures are driven from office as a result of private misconduct, the decision is often followed by a chorus of criticism about the puritanical nature of American society. We are also inevitably asked to compare the actions of the wrongdoer to those of former President Bill Clinton, whose outrageous behavior and lies didn’t put a dent his popularity let alone cause him to step down, even after impeachment. A better argument is that made by those, like Max, who ask us how much the country would have lost if the same standards were applied to heroes of the past who were also guilty of similar bad judgment. Yet in spite of that, I think Petraeus would have been wrong to “brazen it out” by attempting to hold on to his office. Doing so would have been an unpardonable distraction for the CIA at a time when it is under fire for the Benghazi fiasco. Moreover, no man, no matter how great he might be, is indispensable. While the general may well serve his country again in some capacity in the future, having called his judgment into question in this manner, it was impossible for him to remain at the CIA.
The notion that there is something wrong with a standard of conduct that treats infidelity as warranting nothing more than a scolding is one that seems to be increasingly popular. It is argued that the privacy of public officials should be respected just as much as that of private citizens. Viewed from that perspective, David Petraeus’s private life is none of our business. Unlike Bill Clinton, who committed perjury in order to cover up his affairs, Petraeus appears to have broken no laws. So long as that remains the case, why should the nation be deprived of the services of the man who was arguably the ablest American general in more than half a century?
It all sounds quite reasonable, but there are serious problems with this line of thought.
Although it is true that a number of famous Americans in the past have also been guilty of sexual indiscretions, it is incorrect to say the American people gave them a pass for it. For example, had John F. Kennedy’s disgusting conduct in the White House with multiple partners — including interns — been made public, it is doubtful he would have survived the furor. If there is something puritanical about a society in which promiscuous goings-on in the presidential mansion is considered beyond the pale, then so be it. As much as we know that human beings are fallible, there is nothing unreasonable about expecting leaders to behave as if their high office requires them to be on their best behavior while being so honored.
Indeed, the one prominent philanderer who is often cited as a precedent for a man surviving such a scandal — Alexander Hamilton — only did so because he exposed his own private misbehavior so as to make it clear that he was innocent of any public malfeasance, as his critics had charged.
Being the head of the CIA is also a circumstance that should also have made it more, rather than less, important that Petraeus not engage in this sort of behavior. It is a given that intelligence officials ought not do anything that renders them vulnerable to blackmail of any sort. Once he was told of the affair, the immediate response of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was that Petraeus must step down. That was in keeping with that standard. The idea that Petraeus is so uniquely talented that his presence in his post obligates us to ignore his bad judgment doesn’t hold water. As a battlefield and theater commander, Petraeus had no peers in the armed forces. But as important as his work in Langley was, he cannot make the same claim in the field of intelligence.
David Petraeus had a unique status in our public life. That was not just because of his brilliance in Iraq but because he had come to exemplify the ideals of military honor, sacrifice and public service. It may be unfair to expect a hero to behave like one, but that is the price you pay for the sort of applause the general deservedly received. Indeed, unlike his many supporters who are right to mourn his retirement, Petraeus understood that the only proper thing to do once his predicament had become public was to withdraw from his office. This exile from responsibility need not be permanent. But in stepping down, Petraeus has reaffirmed the notion that misconduct warrants more than a shrug. In doing so, he has rendered the country a service that should be applauded.