Beneath Glowing Public Image, Petraeus Had His Critics

The general's detractors paint a picture of Petraeus that is sharply at odds with his public persona

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Gen. David Petraeus testifies to the Senate Armed Forces Committee during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 23, 2007.

To most of America, the downfall of decorated CIA chief David Petraeus was a shock. Aides and associates have long described the retired four-star general as a talented military tactician and sound leader, with accomplishments “comparable to what World War II generals achieved,” says Jack Keane, a one-time Army vice chief of staff and a key architect of the Iraq surge Petraeus led. Among civiilians, the general’s image was even shinier, burnished by hagiographic media accounts like the one penned by biographer Paula Broadwell, the woman with whom he had an affair.

Beneath this glowing reputation, however, Petraeus also had his critics. These detractors, including some from within the military his career helped shape, paint a picture of Petraeus that is sharply at odds with his public persona. They believe the general’s ambitions outpaced his accomplishments. They privately dubbed him “King David” for his high self-regard and chumminess with reporters. And they describe him as a man who found power by cozying up to senior officers and maintained it by working the press.

“Petraeus is a remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia,” argues Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and author known for his book Breaking the Phalanx, which takes the Army to task for the way it organizes and uses its ground forces.

Macgregor describes Petraeus as a “man who for 35 years shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation, a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide-de-camp.” Petraeus “was always a useful fool in the Leninist sense for his political superiors — Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Gates,” he says. “And that is precisely how history will judge him.”

As a young cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Petraeus found his first important Army mentor in the form of Lieut. General William Knowlton, the father of his future wife Holly and West Point’s superintendent. A top graduate, Petraeus did stints in anonymity – but close to power — carrying bags for Army generals like NATO commander John Galvin, Army chief of staff Carl Vuono, and Henry Shelton, who would go on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Some colleagues criticized Petraeus for spending too much time with the brass, and not enough with the troops. In person, he seemed to be a coiled spring perpetually under tension. His ambition burned brightly, and kept him from becoming close friends with many comrades. Instead, he relied on a coterie of junior officers, many of whom had served multiple tours with him in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus never fit the mold of a traditional back-slapping, hale-fellow-well-met Army officer. He had the aura of a cerebral general, a whip-smart but somewhat aloof commander who knew – or at least you suspected he believed – that he was the smartest guy in the war room.

As he rose through the ranks, Petraeus carefully nurtured this image. He raised eyebrows when he invited outsiders into his war rooms to question strategy and sent them out in military aircraft as professional second-guessers. “The man has always been controversial, and therefore his legacy was going to be controversial,” says Stephen Biddle, a military expert at George Washington University who says the lack of any formal review of the U.S. military’s successes and failures in the post-9/11 wars will make Petraeus’ fall from grace cast a long shadow over the conflicts.

Biddle served on three Petraeus advisory teams – one for Afghanistan, one for Iraq, and one when the general took over Central Command – and says he was stunned by the general’s undoing. “Petraeus is one of the most disciplined humans who ever walked the face of the Earth,” he says. “I find the analogy to John Edwards kind of interesting, personally. Here are two very accomplished, very ambitious, very self-aware people, who both fell for their biographer. A certain degree of narcissism looked like it had something to do with both men’s falls.”

Though the affair was out of character, Petraeus has overstepped boundaries before. In July 2009, when he was the chief of the U.S. Central Command, he gave a speech to an annual Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner that made the Air Force the butt of a joke about pilots’ ponytails. Air Force partisans got wind of the comments and described them as “beyond outrageous,” arguing they “belittled the contributions of the Air Force to the joint force.”

The following year, when Army General Stan McChrystal was forced out for insubordination, Petraeus effectively took a demotion to replace him as commander of the Afghan campaign. Obama and his advisers had been somewhat leery of Petraeus; there was a whiff of desperation in the air when they tapped him to succeed McChrystal. Obama was determined to keep Petraeus at arms-length, several links away in the chain of command. Pentagon officials exulted at the change; there would be far less direct communication between the commander-in-chief and his most famous commander.

While the majority of the military is still singing Petraeus’s praises, others have greeted his downfall with an unsparing appraisal. “When a man becomes more reputation than substance, his reputation had better be invulnerable,” says Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and author. “Every successful man has encountered at least one Paula Broadwell. The smart ones don’t take her calls.”

63 comments
BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

I don't know why people are splitting hairs over this man. He is the equivalent of Karl Rove, except that he is in the military. Both men live on legend even though they are short on achievement. Rove did not elect Bush in the first term, SCOTUS did. And in the second term, Bush barely ssqueaked past. Yet, all we hear is how great Rove was. Really??? Why did Romney FLOP like a lizard 332 electoral college votes to 206?? That is a big fat F.

As for Patraeus, there is an interesting article on Salon.com that chronicles his failures in the Iraqi war.I am quite tired of reading about shriveled up old men and their mistresses. I hope this salacious nonsense will blow over soon. We had the blue dress scandal, and now I am awaiting the yellow dress blow out. At times like this you wish for a society that would gag the press. Okay, I am kidding. But for goodness sake, enough of this Petraeus story already.  

samziam
samziam

Seems apparent why Douglas MacGregor retired as a colonel, rather than a general.  Interesting to watch the knives come out when critics have nothing to lose.  That said, the higher the pedestal , the harder the fall.

phillipanderer
phillipanderer

One would have thought that 2 top ranking military men would have been better at hiding their extra-marital manoeuvres and had the good sense to not cheat so close to home, especially when it is so easy to meet strangers on websites such as Undercover Lovers and Ashley Madison nowadays.

Goldenrod
Goldenrod

Petraeous always stressed to those he was mentoring that real character is what you do when no one is looking, how do you think these people feel? 

katyaduras
katyaduras

L-I-V-E YOUR BOOKS with this steamy political satire.Silver Curtains!’Casey found out the complications being ‘the other woman’ in a political candidate’s life. Interesting! Read at thegreaterbooks.

 

starboyone
starboyone

Petraeus and Obama never liked each other since the 2008 Campaign when Obama visited Iraq - Petraeus was Dismissive of Obama the candidate to the Point of ANGRY RUDENESS. The REASON Obama continued to USE Petraeus was Because the Pentagon was Opposed to DRONES because they were seen as a THREAT to 'Big System' Money for Armies and Aircraft Carriers. Petraeus supported the use of DRONES and Special Forces over conventional forces - and this has always been the OBAMA Strategy.  NOW its Time to End the Bush Wars -FIRST Obama had to Move Petraeus to the CIA and NOW Out the Door.

mauibound
mauibound

Men do not have their first affair at 60. 

sc2pilot
sc2pilot

Didn't Democrats run a full-page ad in the New York Times calling him "General Betray-us" when he was nominated to be the supreme allied commander in Afghanistan? Yes, yes in fact they did, on September 10, 2007.

Democrats hate General Petraeus, and any other General promoted by George Bush prior to the Boy King being elected. It was only a matter of time before he was taken down. This whole thing was a setup from day 1, conveniently timed, as well.

RogerCarter
RogerCarter

Something smells "fishy".  We better check for a slightly bent cigar or wet noodle in his desk. 

aurum79
aurum79

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation characterizes Petraus as a religious fundamentalist who promoted  Christian "spiritual discipline" in the military.    Pat Robertson thinks he is the nines.   The guy seems like a hypocritical ass-kisser to me.

CanePazzo
CanePazzo

So why was Petraeus handed the CIA?

shanshayla
shanshayla

Petraeus was just following Bill Clinton's "Code of Honor." Get Honor and Stay Honor.

Sandy
Sandy

Glad to see him go.  He supported Shari Law over American Law in America.  He was the general who made an American postpone his Koran burning in America to a later date than the one he had scheduled.  Yes, I could see that he would make Americans follow Shari Law while in Muslim countries, but he was imposing Sharia Law on Americans in America.  Glad to see that Koran kisser gone.  Good riddance!

cnnhack
cnnhack

What I want to know if WTF did he do to EARN all those medals as opposed to giving them to himself? Looks like an African dictator lol

glennra3
glennra3

“Every successful man has encountered at least one Paula Broadwell. The smart ones don’t take her calls.” - Ralph Peters

That is a great quote.

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

@mauibound I hate the insincerity of the press. Since this man's indiscretions had long been in media gossip for quite a while, are we supposed to believe his adultery is a big newsworthy shock??? This is OLD news. Patraeus is a well known philanderer as are some of his contemporaries. This alarm over his latest tryst is simply an excuse for the media to feed their salacious appetite.   

Skwirrlmaster
Skwirrlmaster

@mauibound Absolutely correct.  He was flying his wife out for visits at Saddam's palaces back when his troops were still rationing capfulls of water during the initial invasion.  At least...  We thought it was his wife.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@sc2pilot 

"This whole thing was a setup from day 1, conveniently timed, as well."

Oh boy here we go.  Petraeus was forced to have an affair over the course of a year, huh?  Those dirty Demorats!

outsider
outsider

so, he didnt sleep with the woman, he didnt break the military code, the fbi agent didnt go to cantor and tell him - it was all a set up, eh?

sc2pilot
sc2pilot

@CanePazzo He was handed the CIA so that he would have a high profile position with access to TS/SCI information. That made it much easier to take him down, because instead of it being personal (which it was - Bush Derangement Syndrome by Democrats), it can be about national security. 

shanshayla
shanshayla

@CanePazzo Like Bill Clinton, he was considered to be a golden boy. They mastered many complex and truly complicated things, yet could not master one of the world's simplest gizmos, the zipper.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@Sandy Wow, that's a powerful lot of crazy there.

First of all, the man was a general and then head of the CIA. He had absolutely no authority in this country to "support Shari (sic) law over American law." (Btw, it's "Sharia law." At least know what you're ranting about.)

Second, it's nice to know you support burning other people's holy texts. I assume you'd be just as open to someone wanting to burn the Bible?

Third, the reason Petraeus didn't want that nutjob burning the Koran was because he feared American troops fighting in Muslim countries might die because of it. He had a valid point. You're okay with troops dying just so you and your ilk can desecrate the Koran?

Fourth, how the hell was he imposing Sharia law over here?

Fifth, you're a loon. Go get yourself more tinfoil and let the sane folk talk.

THuckleberryJohnson
THuckleberryJohnson

@cnnhack Unless you've served in combat, why don't you consider confining your ignorance and commentary to your group sessions for the testicularly challenged?

Piacevole
Piacevole

It is, indeed, a great quote.  The really interesting thing is that when a publisher plans a biography of a high-profile person, he pretty much gets to choose the biographer.  Ms Broadwell showed no previous literary qualifications for this assignment, and, indeed, there was evidently a ghostwriter involved.  A really smart man would have chosen someone other than a tempting hagiographer.  For example, to assist in his bestselling autobiography, "Life," Keith Richards chose James Fox.  Evidently they didn't wind up in bed.  I have to assume that General Petraeus is not as self-aware as is the famously experienced Rolling Stone guitarist.

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

@outsider2011 Since the LiveFyre changover, outsider, I've taken to clicking on the name or avatar of the person commenting. You'd be amazed at the number of drive-bys, like sc2pilot, who have only 1 or 2 Swampland comments.

Sad, really. As sacred noted, he himself lurked here for months before posting any comments. Now we have a daily parade of people who spout off and leave....

THuckleberryJohnson
THuckleberryJohnson

@outsider2011 :  If his infidelity took place after his retirement (September 2011) then no violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) occurred.  If (as many suspect) the affair began while she was embedded (something that it appears both of them took literally), then yes, he did violate Article 134 of the UCMJ.

If the documents on her computer were from the CIA, then both of them are in violation of national security laws governing protection of classified information and subject to criminal prosecution as deemed appropriate.  

The issue of David Petraeus' infidelity does not negate the reality of what @sc2pilot pointed out.  That full page ad was typical of the nasty, disgusting and loathsome nature of liberals and Democrats when it comes to attacking others.  What other group in this country has one of their biggest cheerleaders rejoicing over an event that killed 85 people and caused between $50 and 60 billion in property damage because it facilitated the reelection of his racist ex-crackhead Marxist idol.

outsider
outsider

nor did he email with her - and there wasnt any documents that were classified found on her computer, either eh?

take the tin foil hat off

outsider
outsider

after 4 years of obama derangement syndrome being posted everywhere - now you are calling it bush? not very creative.

kinda lame actually.

Piacevole
Piacevole

This is interesting.  It implies that only women have sexual "honor."  No wonder so many men get into trouble in this direction.  But it's a cute pun, nonetheless.  Reminds me of "once more, into the breach!"

Skwirrlmaster
Skwirrlmaster

@THuckleberryJohnson @cnnhack Unless you've been in the military (I doubt it) you shouldn't talk down to the guy calling out a General that never saw a shot fired in anger about wearing his stack.

Piacevole
Piacevole

"Testicularly challenged" would imply that such an absence would be an disadvantage.  So, tell me: whence do you suppose women's courage arises?  And, please, don't disgrace yourself with the notion that women lack courage.  Not when the military has recently acknowledged the presence of women in combat by finally supplying body armor to actually fit them, because they were there, functioning well, and being maimed and killed right along with the men.

And second, the situation of the wife standing beside the errent highly-placed husband who was testicularly led astray has become a cliche.  However, the obverse?  Not so much. 

outsider
outsider

@doddeb @kbanginmotown 

I think Adam is sleeping; don't forget the campaign lasted like what, a decade?

He's probably on a vacation - i would want to be if i were him

outsider
outsider

@THuckleberryJohnson @outsider2011 

I was with you almost all the way through - but when you talk about Dem's attacking others - without acknowledging that the repubs do the same (you can choose anyone who was against the iraq war, and who got painted as unpatriotic ) then your argument falls apart. 

It was move on who took out the ad, not dems. And it turns out that it was accurate. 

All the facts in this situation (the infidelity, the CIA finding classified documents) are not a set up by the dems to cause the generals fall - which was the premise of SC2pilots post. 

Those are things he (the general) did, or which they (the both of them in the case of the documents) did (or maybe she got them from somewhere else - we'll know if/when the facts come out). 

That wasn't the dems setting him up. 

Piacevole
Piacevole

Mr. Johnson, I was hoping you might own your calumny.  I see that >your< education is not up to the task of honesty.

THuckleberryJohnson
THuckleberryJohnson

@Piacevole:  If you are too ignorant to realize who that is, then it's time for a return to riding on the short bus for some further education.  

Piacevole
Piacevole

The "nasty, disgusting and loathsome" nature of the comments made is certainly one which has been repaid, with a high interest rate, by conservatives and Republicans on various prople and situations. 

Now, just whom do you refer to as a "racist, ex-crackhead Marxist idol?"  If you don't see the how this would definitely qualify as a "nasty, disgusting and loathsome" comment, you are self-delusional.

outsider
outsider

@THuckleberryJohnson

racist, crackhead marxist buffoon. 

And there goes any chance of taking you seriously. 

REMEMBER THE BET RUSTY!!

Piacevole
Piacevole

Mr. Johnson, you aren't coming across as "very bright," never ind creative.  You are also given to repetition.  It is difficult for someone to evaluate intelligence beyond his own (in this case, that would be that possessed by President Obama) but easy to make an educated guess about people who say things like this, without the intellectual ammunition to validate their position.

Here's the situation: when the dust of the 2012 election settled, President Obama was re-elected.  No amount of screeching will change that.  Adjust.

THuckleberryJohnson
THuckleberryJohnson

@outsider2011 Nothing deranged about disliking that racist ex-crackhead Marxist buffoon.  He's a failure who will continue to fail because at the end of the day, he isn't very bright.  His intelligence seems to be nothing more then media hype, just like the assertion that he was a Constitutional Scholar and a college professor because he taught a victimization class couched as law related in Chicago.