Home » World

David Petraeus: The downfall of a man and myth

Saturday, 17 November 2012 - 2:32pm IST Updated: Saturday, 17 November 2012 - 2:33pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
A tawdry sex scandal has wiped the shine off America's top brass and tarnished the legend of one of its most popular generals.

Even for a four-star general feted for the "surge" that extricated America from the sectarian quagmire of Iraq, it was quite an entrance. David Petraeus swept up to the gates of a vast beachfront Florida mansion preceded by no fewer than 28 police motorcycle outriders.

It was the kind of cavalcade usually reserved for presidents, but in February 2010, in the small coastal city of Tampa, Gen Petraeus brought a touch of national glamour to the annual Pirate Festival party held on the lawn of prominent socialite Jill Kelley.

According to the gossip column of the local newspaper, Gen Petraeus, then head of the United States Central Command (CentCom), entered the marquee with his wife, Holly, by his side, as waiters served crab cakes and lamb chops to the local upper crust.

And there, in the footnotes of history's first draft, that incident of excess would have remained were it not for the torrent of revelations this week that have followed the news that Gen Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

It was not the sexual indiscretion that shocked America, so much as the contrast it presented between the carefully cultivated myth of Gen Petraeus - the tall, ascetic fitness freak with a name like a Greek god who affected weariness at the hero status that was thrust upon him - and the reality it exposed.

Only a few days before Gen Petraeus tendered his resignation as head of the CIA, Newsweek magazine had published - courtesy of Broadwell - the general's "12 Rules for Living", which advised leaders to "be humble", to lead by example and, prophetically as it turned out, to accept that "we all make mistakes".

The question that has arisen from this week's events - a potent cocktail of jealous lovers and four-star generals who appear to have had their heads turned by their own celebrity - is whether Gen Petraeus's behaviour was an aberration or part of a wider culture of excess in the top echelons of the US military.

This was also the week that another member of the top brass, General William "Kip" Ward was stripped of a star for spending $129,000 (pounds 81,000) on an 11-day, five-star trip to Washington that included using military vehicles to take his wife shopping. It was the kind of performance that might have been expected from the stereotypical African dictator, not the former head of the US Africa Command.

Such was the panic among the defence establishment that by Thursday morning Leon Panetta, the defence secretary, had ordered a review of the ethics training received by officers, warning that the spate of incidents had "the potential to erode public confidence in our leadership".

And so it was with Gen Petraeus, whose judgment has been seriously questioned as details have emerged both of his relationship with Broadwell and his apparent closeness to his hostess that night in Tampa.

It was Kelley who, last May, unwittingly set in motion the destruction of Gen Petraeus's career, and her own position as social fixer to Tampa's elite, by complaining to a friend in the FBI about nasty emails she had been receiving from someone calling themselves "KelleyPatrol".

According to Newsweek, the messages were not life-threatening, but what one intelligence source described as "catfight stuff" - "More like, 'Who do you think you are?… You parade around the base… You need to take it down a notch.'"

The emails, the subsequent FBI investigation allegedly found, came from Broadwell who appeared - mistakenly, according to Gen Petraeus's friends - to have become obsessed with the idea that Kelley might have been messing around with her mentor and lover.

In the grand unravelling, which Kelley reportedly tried to stop when she realised how deep the FBI investigation was running, searches of Broadwell's email account found illicit messages exchanged in her "drafts" folder - a counter-surveillance technique favoured by the al-Qaeda terrorists her lover and correspondent was in charge of combating. Not only was the CIA chief's infidelity exposed, but also another "potentially inappropriate" relationship between Kelley and Gen John Allen, who replaced Gen Petraeus as the top US commander in Afghanistan.

As the news broke that the FBI was scrutinising hundreds of "flirtatious" emails between Kelley and Gen Allen - who also denied having an affair with Kelley - yet more questions were raised about the company that America's most senior and upstanding generals appeared to be keeping. Court records obtained by The Daily Telegraph showed that as she assiduously wooed Tampa's military elite with her lavish parties - where guests recalled there was always more food than anyone could possibly eat - Kelley was mired in lawsuits from a string of banks totalling $4 million (pounds 2.5 million).

One Republican described the Kelleys as active in the local party. "They're fun, friendly and beautiful people and political folks like them," he said. A fellow military liaison told their local newspaper that in her short cocktail dresses, Kelley was "loud, ostentatious and revealing", hugging and kissing members of the top brass.

The attention appears to have turned Kelley's head. After being given a certificate at one event naming her an "honorary ambassador" to South Korea, Kelley is said to have begun using the title without the "honorary" prefix. As reporters waited outside her house this week, she called the police and demanded "diplomatic protection".

A senior energy industry executive this week said that when they met at the Republican convention in August, Kelley offered to use her role - which she boasted had come via Gen Petraeus - to help him win South Korean energy contracts. Only when she named her desired commission - $80 million (pounds 50 million) - did he sense delusions of grandeur, and back out.

Last night, it emerged that Jill Kelley had visited the White House three times in the past three months with her sister, Natalie, twice eating at the cafeteria as guests of a mid-level aide. She and her family also received a White House tour. The last visit was just five days before Gen Petraeus resigned.

Kelley's identical twin, Natalie Khawam, declared herself bankrupt this year, with liabilities of pounds 2.3 million as she fought a messy divorce. This, too, rebounded on Gens Petraeus and Allen, who had provided written testimony to Ms Khawam's good character as she battled for custody of her son. Gen Petraeus testified to having seen "a very loving relationship - a mother working hard to provide her son enjoyable, educational and developmental experiences". Gen Allen wrote on headed notepaper and signed off as a general in the Marine Corps. He said that Khawam "clearly loves" her son, adding: "In light of Natalie's maturity, integrity and steadfast commitment to raising her child, I humbly request your reconsideration of the existing mandated custody settlement."

But the generals' assessment differed profoundly from that of the judge, who the previous November had awarded custody of Khawam's three-year-old son to her husband, criticising her for "misrepresentations about virtually everything".

"Ms Khawam appears to lack any appreciation or respect for the importance of honesty and integrity in her interactions with her family, employers and others with whom she comes in contact," wrote DC Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz in a stinging judgment. He also accused both sisters of lying under oath in accusing Ms Khawam's ex-husband of domestic violence.

Those who know Gen Petraeus said that his decision to resign was the action of a man whose first instinct is always to take control of a situation: realising that the game was up, the general did the "honourable thing", even hoping perhaps to preserve his reputation for the much-mooted Republican presidential bid in four years' time.

But as the details of his extramarital affair and social connections seeped out, day by day, it seemed as though he was losing exactly that control. Officially, even Barack Obama appeared sympathetic to a man who - as his detractors will admit - has served more years in more unpleasant places than almost any American alive, sacrificing much of his own family life and children's upbringing in the process. Obama used his first press conference since being re-elected to praise Gen Petraeus's "extraordinary service", which, he said, had left America "safer".

Others also leapt to his defence, arguing that in this day and age an eight-month sexual indiscretion that began in November 2011 and ended this July should not take the shine off an otherwise glittering 40-year military career.

After all, supporters argued, didn't Dwight Eisenhower have an affair with Kay Summersby, his flame-haired driver, during World War Two? "If Ike were judged by today's standards, he would have been sent home in disgrace from Europe, and the war likely would have been worse without his calm, determined and unifying presence," fumed Thomas Ricks, a security journalist and author of The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq.

It has daily become harder for General Petraeus to retain the Buddha-like exterior that enabled him to boast of his "12 rules for living", and still be taken seriously. The myth of Gen Petraeus has been carefully constructed over the past decade by "loyal" journalists who were content to aggrandise him in exchange for privileged access. However, this week's scandal not only exploded the myth, but also shone a spotlight on the sometimes shoddy methods of its creation.

Suddenly, Broadwell's book All In: The Education of General David Petraeus was seen for what it was - a shameless hagiography. And her previous remarks, once seen as the incontrovertible testimony of the privileged insider, now sounded like the embarrassing gushings of a besotted young girl. "He is quite a physical specimen," Broadwell told an event at the Aspen Institute to promote the book in July - shortly before he ended the affair, according to a former spokesman. "He really loves to work out. I think at the agency they call him a genetic mutant. He is 59 and he can run around 6:30-minute miles right now, do over 120 push-ups, 120 sit-ups, 250 flutter kicks, which is pretty good for someone who has been in a high-demand job."

The damage for Gen Petraeus was not so much the news that Broadwell was being investigated by the FBI for being in possession of classified documents (which he says did not come from him), but more the idea that a man of such allegedly iron self-control could have got involved with a woman whose harassing, haranguing emails displayed the opposite of that virtue.

Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist who triggered the sacking in 2010 of Gen Stanley McChrystal, Gen Petraeus's predecessor in Afghanistan, with an article exposing the laddish culture in which the general's aides criticised the Obama administration, led the charge. Having trashed Broadwell's book when it was published in January as "blatant, unabashed propaganda", Hastings accused the fawning American media of colluding in the creation of the fraudulent Petraeus legend. "All the profiles, stage-managed and controlled by the Pentagon's multi-million dollar public relations apparatus, built up an unrealistic and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do Petraeus or the public any favours," he wrote.

Confessing to having "bought into" Gen Petraeus's spin, Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter for Wired magazine, wrote: "Some of us, who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counter-insurgency was so sophisticated, were perpetuating myths without fully realising it."

Even more seriously for Gen Petraeus, the tarnishing of his legend has opened up fresh questions not about his moral standing but about his actual record of service, particularly his achievements in Iraq. Hastings again led the way, describing the much-vaunted Iraq "surge" as "the most impressive con job in recent American history", in which a polarising pro-Shia policy was falsely sold to the public as a "victory" for Petraeus's counter-insurgency doctrine.

And as the dust starts to settle on 10 years of war, even Ricks - typically the military's defender - has claimed a "culture of mediocrity" has taken hold in the upper ranks that no one dares address. In a country that lionises its armed forces, these are difficult criticisms to make and to hear, but the revelations of this week will have opened the eyes of America to the possibility that what appeared to be virtuous self-deprecation among their top brass was, in fact, dangerously high levels of self-regard.
 


Jump to comments

RELATED