Beyond the affair

Why the Petraeus affair really matters

Initially, as Washington, D.C. scandals go, the one enmeshing former CIA Director, General David Petraeus could not have been more impeccably timed or skillfully managed. Despite many months of secret investigation by the FBI, the scandal involving the iconic general, who was also a key administration figure, conveniently did not come to light during the heat of the presidential election. General Petraeus abruptly resigned November 9th, stepping down admitting to an affair, allegedly with his biographer and former military intelligence officer, Paula Broadwell, who for many days skillfully eluded efforts by reporters to discover her whereabouts during the height of the media storm. It seemed possible that the fall-out of the affair would be confined to the reputational damage done to the Petraeus and Broadwell households and official Washington would move on to speculation regarding who the President might nominate to be Petraeus’ successor as CIA Director.

It was not to be. Instead of quieting down, the Petraeus scandal blossomed like a fireball, engulfing General John Allen, USMC, the commander of NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, subsequently merging with the already rancorous dispute between the Obama administration and Congress over the investigation of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The administration, which had hoped the resignation would preclude Petraeus from testifying, saw Senators and Congressmen, angry that the FBI had failed to properly inform them, compel the former CIA director to come before closed door hearings of the intelligence committees. In secret testimony, Petraeus revealed, contrary to the administration’s position, that UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s controversial Benghazi talking points from the CIA had later been “edited”, leaving Republican senators furious and determined to block any nomination of Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

If the reaction to the Petraeus scandal, which did not appear to involve any official misconduct, were merely another symptom of the normal partisan political dysfunction in Washington, the matter would have already faded. Unfortunately, the timing of the scandal in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election and symbolic nature of General Petraeus himself, having been lionised for his leadership role in two still-controversial wars, has served as a catalyst, inflaming existing divisions and pointing to the potential of long term effects upon the conduct of American policy, unfolding for some time to come and likely for the worse.

Here is a brief survey of the fault lines.

The US Army
Prior to the scandal, the US Army was already struggling to decide its operational future as a professional fighting force under impending budget cuts. A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has yielded a junior officer and NCO corps whose entire career had been consumed by repeated combat deployment for counterinsurgency warfare. As resulted, traditional warfighting skills in armor, artillery and other units have reportedly eroded for lack of training and a culture of micromanagement and leadership from the rear cultivated. The fall of Petraeus from grace has emboldened his severest critics in the military to attack him personally over what journalist and Iraq war veteran Carl Prine called “stale myths”and “cheap hagiography”. More importantly, to renew their lengthy feud with the “COINdinistas”, the advocates of the population-centric counterinsurgency (“COIN”) theory that Petraeus championed, over COIN’s place in American military doctrine.

Petraeus’ admirers are already hitting back hard and this nasty dispute will sharpen with the coming withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 and the looming prospect of budgetary apocalypse from sequestration. We could see a reprise of the 1970’s, where proponents of “Big Army” largely purged counterinsurgency from the Army’s institutional memory, choosing to focus upon stopping the Soviets in the Fulda Gap with a “Rising China” as the new stand-in for the USSR.

The Beltway
The Petraeus scandal has scotched any potential of a traditional ‘honeymoon’ for President Obama at a time when he is making the most dramatic changes to the Cabinet of any second term president since Richard Nixon. While Nixon deliberately purged his Cabinet and Obama’s personnel changes appear to be voluntary, the deeply polarised atmosphere in Washington bodes ill for a President seeking to replace his Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Energy, Interior, the Attorney-General and his CIA Director. Confirmation hearings for these positions threatens to become a partisan circus. If that were not enough, Lieutenant General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence and Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI, will also come under strict Congressional scrutiny for their role in the Petraeus scandal while Attorney-General Eric Holder, a close political ally of the President, has already been held in contempt of Congress for the unrelated “Fast and Furious” scandal involving ATF gun-running to vicious Mexican drug cartels.

The net result is likely to be an extended period of paralysis and partisan infighting in Washington, unless the administration can successfully reach a degree of some accommodation with Congressional Republicans. Most seriously, is the impending leap of the Federal Government off the “fiscal cliff” that Federal Reserve Chairman, Bernard Bernanke strongly warned against on Wednesday. Such accommodation will be extremely tricky to reach given that not only are the two sides far apart philosophically, but goodwill is largely absent. The Obama administration is viewed by the Republicans as extremely arrogant and a fundamentally dishonest player of political ‘hardball’ that some term “the Chicago way”. The dribbling out of information that Jill Kelley, the “Tampa socialite” in the scandal (who lavishly entertained senior general officers far beyond her means, first contacted the FBI, visited the White House several times and has associations with Democratic fundraisers and US Senators like John Kerry) has raised questions. For their part, the Obama administration officials see many Republican lawmakers as intransigent extremists and zealously partisan critics of the President, staking out irresponsible positions, such as Senator McCain’s recent vow to vote against any nominee for Secretary of State.

Foreign Policy
The Obama administration has undertaken two major foreign policy initiatives in the first term. Their “Pivot to Asia” in making the Asia-Pacific basin a top military and diplomatic priority for the United States has been generally welcomed at home and abroad, except in Beijing. Largely, strengthening ties with traditional American allies in the region like Japan, South Korea and Australia and vigorously reaching out to ASEAN and a “Rising India” have enjoyed both positive publicity and strong bipartisan Congressional support. Their other policy has been equally important but quasi-clandestine and deeply controversial, an unnamed but effective effort to establish a policy of “Détente with Moderate Islamists” – of which support for the Libyan and Egyptian revolutions and especially, the Government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is a showcase. The latter policy was already unpopular with Republicans and pro-Israeli Democratic members of Congress but it has now become intertwined with the Petraeus scandal due to the belief among Republicans that the administration played politics with the public narrative about Benghazi to downplay the threat from Islamist terrorists.

Generally, second term presidents are able to pursue achievements in foreign affairs, as Ronald Reagan did with the INF treaty or Bill Clinton attempted with Israel and the Palestinians, because the opposition party in Congress is generally more deferential to a president on foreign policy vice domestic issues. Because of Benghazi and the Petraeus scandal, which will inevitably involve many Congressional hearings, the poisonous partisanship that has become the rule in domestic politics, is about to bleed over into foreign policy. Coupled with a sequestration crisis and the inability to fill Cabinet vacancies in a timely fashion in the Senate confirmation process, US foreign policy could potentially see an extended period of drift and de facto abdication of global leadership. This would impact, due to inability to agree upon a budget, even foreign policy areas where a rare consensus exists.

General David Petraeus is not responsible for these ripple effects that are ensuing from his scandal, the fundamental conflicts in American government have been smoldering for years and in some cases, decades. His mistakes were largely of a personal and not professional or political nature, conducted on the slender margins of private time left by his high profile jobs pursuing American military and national security priorities. If “King David” had not stumbled in his friendship with Paula Broadwell, a different media-enticing pretext would have sufficed equally well for American partisans to lunge at each other’s throats.