Petraeus, Moralizing, & Leadership Obligations

This past Friday, David Petraeus, a retired 4-star general in the US Army resigned from his position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He resigned because evidence had surfaced that he had had an extramarital affair.

On the surface, of course, this is just another example of a powerful man succumbing, as all too many seem to do, to the all too common temptation to betray his marital commitments. And, again on the surface, it raises questions about whether private foibles are sufficient reason to think a man unfit for public office. Petraeus himself, in his letter of resignation to President Obama, said he had shown “extremely poor judgment.” The question that always arises — remember Clinton/Lewinski? — is whether poor judgment in personal matters necessarily implied poor judgment in public matters, or whether instead the scandal really just amounts to a puerile bit of titillation.

But the fact is that Petraeus is not just another man, and not even just another man in a leadership position. He was, until November 9th, Director of the CIA, the most important intelligence organization on the planet. He was, in other words, one of the world’s most desirable candidates for blackmail. And so any transgression that could serve as fodder for blackmail is immediately amplified in magnitude. Clearly, marital infidelity is pretty high on that list. Someone in a position like the one Petraeus had has to stay squeaky clean, not for moralistic reasons, but for national security reasons.

And the seedier details that have been emerging seem to bear this worry out, at least to some extent. The woman with whom Petraeus is said to have had the affair, Paula Broadwell, is now said to have sent threatening letters to another woman who she saw as a rival for the general’s affections. That’s not to say that anything like blackmail was in the offing. But it suggests that the Petraeus/Broadwell affair had dark edges to it beyond your standard tale of marital infidelity.

There will surely be, in the coming weeks and months of analysis of this matter, plenty of talk about the demands of leadership and the character and integrity it requires. But what leadership at the highest level really requires is not just character, but an acute awareness of your own weaknesses — including weaknesses you share with the rest of the human population — and the ability to foresee and forestall the risks the flow from those.

3 comments so far

  1. Lynda Jelinek on

    This is a perfect example of a public official adding unethical fuel to the fire. Rome is burning and America is Rome 2012. I have seen and heard too many comments saying that a little indiscretion is a shame but not shameful. How wrong and how far have we come to not hold leaders of any social or political position to a higher standard. Of course he should have submitted his resignation. Of course the President should have accepted it. There should be no question of the ethical thing to do in this situation. Unfortunately the media will twist and mangle this story whatever the outcome and the word “ethics” will probably not even be brought up.

    • Ellen Thr3e Thinking on

      I agree. Many of us know that the ethics part of this story will be ignored and instead the media will focus on the so called ‘juicy details’. For any organisation this is not the way they would want to be portrayed through the media, especially with the level of public awareness the public already has of the CIA.

  2. Ellen Thr3e Thinking on

    I like the way you’ve structured this argument. It did make me wonder for a moment whether Petraeus’s activities should have meant an end to his career in the CIA, but as you’ve stated, how could the company risk having such a liability on its payroll? It does just highlight how little some people consider the implications their actions to be; which is a shame considering his position.


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