Kiboshed for the wrong reason

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Paris, 12 November 2012


US Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus has just fallen on his sword – courtesy of an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.

In most countries – take France, for instance – a private liaison of this kind bereft, it would appear, of any national security implications – would not even merit a one-sentence paragraph on the inside pages of a national newspaper.

In the US, however, it is big news.

That is because, while the rest of us have moved on, the United States remains bogged down in the Puritanism imported by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620.

Petraeus – known as “Betray Us” to his critics – just had to go. Married for 38 years, Petraeus and his wife Holly had been a model military couple up to now, demonstrating, it appeared, that a happy family life was not incompatible with the strains of long separations as a result of military deployment.

It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that the US media covered the defenestration of this all-American hero.

Born 1952 in Cornwall-on-Hudson in New York State,  Petraeus, spent a total of 37 years in the US Army. A four-star general, he was in charge of the western occupation force in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. As supreme commander from 2010 to 2011 of the western troops occupying Afghanistan, he persuaded President Obama to authorize the deployment of an extra 30 000 US troops to that theatre. This was the famous “surge” in troop numbers. Petraeus then headed the CIA from September 2011 until he resigned last Friday 9 November 2012.

Petraeus graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York State, in 1974. He was top graduate in the class of 1983 at the US Army Command and General Staff College. In 1987 he gained a doctorate in international relations at Princeton University, New Jersey, subsequently becoming assistant professor of international relations at West Point and also completing a fellowship at Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, in Washington D.C.

As a result of his academic prowess, Petraeus was often held up by defence apologists as a living refutation of the dictum that “military intelligence is a contradiction in terms”.

However, another adage came into play last Friday: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

A report in the International Herald Tribune today 12 November 2012 comments: “Few imagined that such a dazzling career would have so tawdry and so sudden a collapse.”

The paper quotes Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and presidential adviser, as saying: “It’s a personal tragedy, of course, but it’s also a tragedy for the country.”

Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the army, called the resignation “an absolute tragedy for somebody who has accomplished so much for this country and made such an enormous sacrifice”.

However, the prize for the most cringe-makingly obsequious elegy on the downfall of this military demi-god must surely go to BBC journalist John Simpson.

Writing on the BBC’s website on 10 November 2012 under the heading “General David Petraeus: a huge loss for US”, Simpson  comments:

The US has lost one of its most admired public servants – the man who came up with the plan which successfully got his country out of one unpopular war, and will get it out of another by 2014.


General David Petraeus took a remarkable amount of experience with him when he went to be the new head of the CIA just over a year ago.


He had commanded the international forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was probably the cleverest and the most highly-praised soldier of his time.


General Petraeus certainly had more experience of combating terrorism in its different guises than any other military or civilian figure in the Western world.


He rebuilt the entire counterinsurgency strategy of the United States, which had been almost a forgotten subject since the Vietnam war, and created a highly effective blueprint for fighting insurgencies.


For this amount of brain-power and strategic and tactical thinking to be lost to the United States because of an affair with his biographer will no doubt seem to many in Europe and the rest of the world to be completely disproportionate.


But this is not simply another example of the kind of Puritanism which bemuses non-Americans. As the boss of the CIA David Petraeus was expected to set an example to the people under his command;

and extra-marital affairs have often led to blackmail and other difficulties for intelligence workers in the past…..


As I found over the years, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Petraeus is a very pleasant and witty man, as well as a highly intelligent one.


His toughness, perhaps even cynicism, served him well in Baghdad and Kabul as well as Washington.


When the American forces were becoming badly bogged down in Iraq, with faulty tactics, nothing much in the way of strategy, and visibly declining morale, Petraeus stepped in and changed everything.


“Of course it’s possible to win this war,” he told me crisply in 2007, “and I intend to do it.”


Whether the United States and its partners did win the war in Iraq is debatable; but it is certain that General Petraeus gave American public opinion the feeling that they had.


In politics, and to some extent in military matters, what counts is the way things are perceived, rather than how they actually are.


General Petraeus introduced the concept of the “surge” – a big rise in the number of US troops in Iraq.


This, combined with the increasing war-weariness among Iraqis, a growing dislike of Islamic extremism and a natural down-turn in the insurgency, made Iraq a quieter place for a time.


He knew very well that once American forces were withdrawn from Iraq, the US news media would no longer be interested in what was going on there.


There was of course no end to the bombings and targeted killings after the Western troops pulled out, but scarcely anyone in the United States seemed to notice.

As far as they were concerned, Iraq had been solved….


Soon, under a new president, he was reversioning the plan to fit Afghanistan instead of Iraq….


When American, British and other Western troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan next year, it will be according to the basic plan drawn up by General Petraeus.


And once more the world’s news media will no doubt forget about the country that has been left behind.


He was the best American general for a generation; now he is the worst loss to his country for longer than that.




We have quoted at length from John Simpson’s panegyric because his comments are the most egregious example we have come across in recent times of the distortion and lack of discrimination that mars judgement when journalists become too intimate with the persons about whom they are writing. We do not feel any need to refute his remarks in detail as they refute themselves.


Our own view of the undoing of Petraeus is rather different from that of Simpson. But then we do not labour under the disadvantage of close acquaintance with the fallen CIA director.


The Iraq War lasted from the invasion by US and UK forces without UN authority on 20 March 2003 until 18 December 2011, when the last soldiers in the US army of occupation retreated to Kuwait, America having been refused permission to retain military bases in Iraq. Following the retreat of western forces, the bombings and slaughter in Iraq have continued unabated. What is more, the Iraqi Government, created by the Americans themselves during the occupation, has fallen under the influence of Shiite Iran, the current number one enemy of the United States. An estimated 600 000 people, mostly Iraqis, died during the war.


The Afghan War started when the US invaded the country on 7 October 2001. Despite the “surge” in troop numbers advocated by Petraeus, the war has achieved nothing. The designated enemy, the Taliban, are stronger than ever. The puppet government of Afghanistan is chafing under the boot of a western occupation which it constantly criticizes. Corruption is rife. Opium production is the country’s main industry. Suicide bombings and gunfights rock the capital daily. No road outside Kabul is safe from attack. Meanwhile, troops from the allied invading forces are being picked off, one by one, day after day, in a non-stop conflict that was doomed from the start. To cap it all, although the fighting is still going on with no sign of a let-up, the date for the final western retreat has already been announced – the end of 2014. By that time the western occupation forces hope to have trained a native Afghan army that will be able to defend its own country. Dream on! The training programme itself has undergone a severe setback as a result of the suspension of joint exercises involving western and Afghan soldiers. The reason is a significant spike in the number of western troops being murdered by Taliban who have infiltrated the Afghan army in considerable numbers. It is scarcely credible that such an army will be in a position to take over from the west in 2014. The date for the retreat has been fixed because, after eleven years, the penny has finally dropped and the US president now recognizes that the original aim of turning Afghanistan into a fully functioning western democracy will never be attained. Nor has America the resources to continue funding an open-ended war in Afghanistan.


Hardly anyone now thinks that the Iraq and Afghan expeditions are anything other than a total failure.


David Petraeus was intimately identified with those campaigns.


It is for this reason – not because of his extra-marital affair – that we are glad to see the back of him.

Good riddance!


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.








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