Petraeus’ resignation will be a loss for Israel, too
A hero of the kind America loves, the outgoing CIA chief also understood both Israel’s security needs and the need to advance peace with the Palestinians.
The downfall (not necessarily final) of Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned this weekend as head of the CIA after confessing to an extramarital affair, is a classic American melodrama, more fascinating even than the presidential election: sex and politics, defense and the media, the army and hypocrisy, public morality and personal conduct, a super-achiever who trips because his Achilles’ heel is located a bit higher than his heel.
Petraeus was the foremost hero, perhaps the only one, of the Iraq War – the commander who turned a costly and humiliating defeat into a relative victory. That, at least, is his popular image, as burnished by the military reporters who covered him. Creative, a deep thinker, someone who challenged accepted wisdom, he first dusted off counterinsurgency doctrine and then proposed a surge instead of a withdrawal. And, most important of all, it worked – at least temporarily, thus permitting a withdrawal without humiliation.
A son of Dutch immigrants, an outstanding cadet marked for promotion from the first, Petraeus, who married the daughter of the superintendent of West Point military academy, was someone who used every opportunity to acquire both education and connections, to meet politicians and journalists. Iraq boosted him from a mere division commander, one of a dozen, into the national consciousness.
America, which had been disappointed in its generals for the last 60 years, suddenly found an officer after its own heart. He was frequently compared to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last general to become president – also after presiding over a war conducted by a multinational alliance full of diplomatic and personal sensitivities.
Petraeus didn’t rush to make political hay of his military fame; he wanted first to ascend to the top of the military pyramid. But the very qualities that charmed the public made him a threat to ambitious politicians: When U.S. President Barack Obama’s aides surveyed the field and wondered whom the Republicans could run in 2012 that could constitute a real threat, Petraeus headed the list.
American law imposes a 10-year cooling-off period before an officer can become secretary of defense, but there’s no such barrier to running for president. Eisenhower was still in uniform, as the first commander of NATO, when he answered the Republican call.
Since then, the army hasn’t supplied any successful presidential candidates. Gen. Wesley Clark ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, but lost handily.
Keep your friends close …
However, Petraeus seemed far more dangerous.
Thus, Obama’s team sought to keep him in the administration, but far from the limelight. Had he been named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he could easily have overshadowed Obama as commander in chief. So instead, he was asked to head the CIA – an important job, but one in the shadows.
One of the U.S. Army’s permanent hypocrisies relates to its officers’ marriages. The wife is always lauded as the partner without whom the commander couldn’t achieve his goals, regardless of the couple’s real relationship. This hypocrisy has an organizational purpose: to tell soldiers they can look forward to a normal family life. And the punishment matches its purported value: Anyone caught straying is ousted without mercy.
Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston was President Bill Clinton’s preferred candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but because he had an affair with another woman (whom he later married ) while separated from his wife but still married to her, Clinton didn’t dare nominate him. The hypocrisy is clear: Clinton’s own affair with Monica Lewinsky didn’t lead to his ouster. But the rules are different for elected officials.
Petraeus was a valued interlocutor for Israel’s military and intelligence communities. As head of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Arab countries and Iran, he greatly increased contacts with the Israel Defense Forces. It was a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when fear of Arab reactions caused CENTCOM to refuse to deal directly with Israel, insisting that all contacts be conducted via Washington or the European Command, which is responsible for Israel. Less than 25 years ago, when then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Shomron visited the Special Operations Command’s headquarters at MacDill air force base in Florida, CENTCOM officers, who share the officers’ mess with SOCOM, were terrified lest Shomron cross the line that divided their halves of the mess and thereby anger the Saudis.
Petraeus also understood both Israel’s security needs and the need to advance peace with the Palestinians, the absence of which causes problems for America as well. His resignation from the CIA will thus be a loss for Israel, too.
But 21st-century America, with all its insistence on exacting a price from those who err, also knows how to forgive. It’s four years until the next election. Petraeus can write his book on defense and statecraft, get rich from giving lectures, and then bow to public demand and return.