Public affairs

Petraeus made a private mistake and should not have had to resign

The resignation of General David Petraeus from his position as CIA director is a stunning downfall for one of the most highly regarded public officials in modern times. That the architect of the surge during the Iraq War turned commander of military operations in Afghanistan would have his career ended by marital infidelity is still hard to imagine. The scandal is especially compelling because it resembles a soap opera more than real life, in terms of the amount of dirty laundry uncovered. Petraeus is but a part in a tangled web of clandestine affairs: Investigators found General John Allen, Petraeus’ successor as commander in Afghanistan, to have been sharing a voluminous and suggestive correspondence with Jill Kelley, the woman who filed the complaint to the FBI that unraveled the scandal. Allegations of an affair led to the postponement of Allen’s nomination as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces. Petraeus and Allen are in positions of authority; we are supposed to look up to them. Thus is it not right to punish them for their mistakes? While the usual inclination is to say yes, I argue that in this case the answer is no.

We have an unspoken notion that all public officials are also supposed to act as moral authorities, and that the high standards for officials entail not just fulfilling the responsibilities of their positions but also maintaining a spotless record in their private lives. This is a misguided standard at best and a wasteful one at worst. I am not condoning infidelity, but what exactly about Petraeus’ being involved with another woman compromises his ability as CIA director? An affair might be a bombshell in his domestic life, but it should not be paraded as a public spectacle; frankly, it is none of our business. While Petraeus’ affair is by all accounts morally reprehensible, he should not have been pressured to resign solely for that reason. Likewise, Allen’s nomination for Supreme Commander should not be rescinded or put on hold because of mere allegations of infidelity.

Some argue that the way Petraeus conducted his affair with Paula Broadwell, his mistress and biographer, compromised his security as CIA director, and thus he was right in resigning. He communicated with Broadwell through a public Gmail account, which is troubling since hackers have been known to target the personal accounts of public officials to find dirt about them. His position is especially vulnerable to blackmail — the intelligence director naturally makes enemies during his tenure. I expected the spymaster general to have a more sophisticated method of conducting a clandestine affair, but this argument — that he would have succumbed to blackmail to hide his affair — assumes that Petraeus is morally corrupt, which outside of this one indiscretion is unfounded. Even if some hacker working for a foreign intelligence agency blackmailed Petraeus about his affair, I doubt that a man who has worked in the army for almost forty years would even entertain the thought of saving his personal reputation at the cost of jeopardizing national security. At that point, he would just confess his mistake.

Petraeus’ affair, which is certainly not the first and certainly not the last for public figures, is but another reminder that those in positions of authority are also flesh and blood. While they should be held to high standards, we must acknowledge that they also make mistakes. Some mistakes are excusable, and some are not. In Petraeus’ case, the mistake is excusable in the sense that it is impertinent to his role as CIA director; in his domestic life, however, such a mistake is a great one and not at all excusable. Thus we can see him as a great leader but a flawed family man — a man who has served his country greatly but has failed those who are closest to him. It should be obvious, then, that his being a flawed family man does not prevent him from being a great general or CIA director, making his resignation senseless. But even if there was no external pressure, Petraeus probably would have resigned anyway. Stepping down is his way of saving face; he cannot achieve redemption if he does not first fall from grace. If Bill Clinton’s storied post-presidential career is any indication, Petraeus’ career will remain relatively intact after the dust has settled.
Rolph Recto’s column normally appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

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