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Opinion Roundup: Does The Petraeus Affair Matter?


Since General David Petraeus' abrupt resignation last week as head of the CIA after acknowledging extramarital affair, the scandal has spread with astonishing speed. Now General John Allen is also under investigation regarding some 30,000 pages of documents, including years of exchanges with a Petraeus family friend. It's all rich fodder for the opinion pages where writers are weighing in on the significance of the relationships, timing of these revelations and what it says about the lionization of leadership and the blindness of hubris.

We're going to read now from a number of these commentaries as we sort of wade through them, but this is also your chance to weigh in on something everyone seems to have an opinion on. Why does this story matter though? Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's start off something that caught my eye. Writing today in Politico, the columnist Roger Simon, not a military columnist by any means but a long-time political observer, said the sex scandal is beside the point. The stupidity of the whole thing is what surprised him. And he goes on to write: I know we've been told he is some kind of towering genius, West Point grad, Princeton Ph.D., four-star general. But add one other quality: blockhead. And Simon then goes on, Petraeus sends Broadwell sexually explicit messages through his Gmail account, messages so explicit that they leave no doubt in the minds of FBI investigators that the two are having an affair. Got that? The head of the Central Intelligence Agency thinks Gmail accounts are secure and untraceable. What? He couldn't have checked with a tech-savvy 12-year-old first?

Well, let's continue on just a little bit here in Washington before we take a call and go to Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. Very different opinion. He says it's time to get David Petraeus back to work. Is there a better man to fill General Petraeus' CIA seat than Petraeus himself? He is blackmail proof now, more than qualified for the job. And Richard Cohen, who does write about international military affairs continues, the United States would not only be getting the best man for the job, but also striking a blow against the sexual McCarthyism that has destroyed so many careers. At dinner one night, I sat opposite Holly Petraeus, the general's wife. She's charming and deeply concerned about the welfare of our troops, both active and retired. I can only imagine her hurt. But this is her matter and her husband's and not ours. He betrayed her, not his country. No more need be said. Now get back to work.

Well, let's listen to what you have to say. Give us a call: 1-800-989-8255. And let's take a call. James is calling us from Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, James.

JAMES: Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call.

LYDEN: You're welcome. And what comment would you like to make?

JAMES: Well, I'm an Army officer and a former Army prosecutor as well and, in fact, my first Army assignment was with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell. I looked up to General Petraeus as a model of what an officer should be. But the fact that anyone could view his conduct as purely personal conduct to the matters between him and his wife really, I think, discredits the military and what we stand for.

General Petraeus, if the facts are correct, committed a crime. He committed the crime of adultery, not a crime in a lot of states but is in the military. It undermines good order and discipline. It looks bad for the military. And if another officer or another enlisted soldier committed that same crime, they could be looking at dishonorable discharge, time in jail, letters of reprimand. They wouldn't get to just say, hey, I committed a crime. I'd like to step down. So I'm very disappointed in General Petraeus. And in some ways, I think he's getting off easy.

LYDEN: James, I can understand the hurt and disappointment and definitely the symbolism. But something else kind of came up in our discussion here today, and this may be more to the point for military person like yourself. I'm not, in any sense, dismissing your serious reservations. What about judgment? What does it say, you're asking someone to make many, many judgments? And at a minimum, it seems that - I mean, I understand this came along in the CIA era of the career. But, you know, are people not distracted? Do you feel as secure as you like under a commander who wasn't engaging in this sort of behavior?

JAMES: Well, I think that's absolutely right. This shows extraordinarily bad judgment from someone who we trust to make some of the very most important decisions, whether as CIA chief or a military leader. And that, you know, not only cast out on his moral character, but on his abilities to lead.

LYDEN: All right. Well, thank you very much for calling in from Nashville, James.

JAMES: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: Let's go to an email now. This is from Davis States(ph). He says, what about General Allen? The discussion has centered on General Petraeus. But for many of us, the bigger issue surrounds General Allen and the huge number of emails he sent. How could sending 30,000 emails over three years, more than 20 a day, not have affected his ability to carry out his enormous responsibilities as commander of the army in Afghanistan? Did he leak sensitive information to this woman in Florida? Even if Allen never had an - never - if he never had intimate relations with her, the whole affair raises serious questions about the conduct of the general staff. And this is from David J. States, a doctor in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Let's take another call. Jess is calling from Cincinnati, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Jess.

JESS: Hi. Thank you and really sorry you got stuck with the story today.


JESS: But I was calling - I really don't think this sex scandal is really relevant to anyone's lives except for General Petraeus'. And I've heard - ever since the story broke, I've heard almost nothing but news about the scandal. What I really like to hear is why...

LYDEN: I'm just going to ask you, what would you rather hear?

JESS: I'd like to hear about how this would affect our national security when General Petraeus is officially resigned? And I think there's a lot of other really important stories that haven't been covered, like the Puerto Rico voting to become the 51st state, which I think will have much bigger implications than a sex scandal on our country.

LYDEN: All right. Well, thank you so much for making that point, Jess. Let me take comments in here from Dan Lamothe of the Marine Times, who poses five questions to answer about General David Petraeus and John Allen. And perhaps the most interesting: How does the scandal affect the war? On the ground, rank-and-file Marines and soldiers are far removed from the personal choices their top commanders made. However, Allen had reportedly made recommendations to the White House recently about what the U.S. presence in Afghanistan should look like after 2014. With General Allen embroiled in a circus, does the White House slow-roll their planning for the war? Or do they forge ahead even as the military leadership involved is both in turmoil and transition?

A question I have no doubt many people in positions of authority are considering here. So that goes a bit to the point we just heard. Let's speak now to David, who's calling us in from Orlando, Florida. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, David.

DAVID: Thank you for taking my call. Listening to the dialogue on this, and it seems to me that there are two distinct camps that have been created: People who have served in the military and those that don't. Those in the military feel like there's a certain code of conduct, a (technical difficulties) code of conduct that General Petraeus violated. And people who haven't served who wonder how this affects his ability to do his job. You know, it just seems there are two different standards out there.

The other observation I must share with you is people assume that General Petraeus uses the same decision-making processes in his personal life that he did in his professional life. And I don't think that's a fair assumption to make. I think that he may used to have certain standards for, you know, for his judgment in making decisions in his personal life that are entirely different from what he used in his professional life. And I'll take whatever comments related to that off the air.

LYDEN: OK. Well, thank you for that, David, and thank you for pointing out a couple of different ways that people in and out of the service might come at this. Let's talk about what Frank Bruni of The New York Times have to say. He said that he spotted sexism in some of the initial reporting about the affair. He says: There are many questions about the FBI, the timing of the revelation, possibly security breaches. Those answers matter, but consider this. Her expressive green eyes - The Daily Beast - and tight shirts and form-fitting clothes - The Washington Post - don't. And the anecdotes and chatter that implicitly or explicitly wonder at the spidery wiles she must have used to throw the mighty man off his path are laughably ignorant of history, which suggests that mighty men are all too ready to tumble loins first. Wile factors less into the equation than proximity.

And that is another consideration. Let's go to another call here. Michael is calling in from Miami. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Michael.

MICHAEL: Hi. Thank you. I'm just wondering. I've seen nothing or heard nothing on NPR mention about the historic turf war between the FBI and the CIA. And this was something that was discussed as one of the reasons why there wasn't better communication between the two agencies in the lead-up to 9/11. And, you know, there was efforts by the - when we designed the Homeland Security Department to sort of deal with bringing these two agencies together. And I'm wondering if this isn't more of that turf war, where the FBI is investigating something they really have no business investigating and then making an issue of it to try to get rid of the acting head of - or of the current head of CIA.

LYDEN: OK. Thank you for that point, Michael. I want to get a few other calls in here. And let's go to Sharon, who's calling in from Redwood City, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Sharon.

SHARON: Yes. Thank you. I worry we could be losing a really good man to a really stupid mistake. I just don't understand. You know, if I'm not married to him, this doesn't have an impact on me. I know it's a stupid mistake, but it doesn't show in any of his records that he's made stupid mistakes professionally. So...

LYDEN: You know, I'm just looking at something here, Sharon. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer says the same thing. To me, the whole Victorian shame game seems seriously outdated. Something like half the marriages in the country now end in divorce, and you can bet a great many of those involved extramarital affairs. Is it desirable to bar such a large number of public servants from top jobs for something like this?

SHARON: Exactly. I completely agree with that.

LYDEN: Hmm. All right. Well, thank you for that comment. Let's go on to Dennis in Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Dennis.

DENNIS: Good afternoon.

LYDEN: Still there? Good. Good afternoon.

DENNIS: Good afternoon.

Yes, I am.

LYDEN: Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. And what point did you want to make?

DENNIS: I would point out that in the view of anyone who's familiar with the lifestyle in theater that it's almost impossible to believe that those who are around General Petraeus while he served in theater - his aides de camp, his executive officer, his personal security details and the staff around him - were unaware that this untoward relationship was going on. And my concern here is what it tells us about a culture of silence around the military that will have those who knew that adultery was a violation of the uniform code of military justice said nothing.

LYDEN: All right.

DENNIS: And I'll take my response or any other inputs that you have off the air.


DENNIS: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: OK. In the queue. Well, you talked about any other inputs. I think a very interesting one comes from Thomas Ricks, a former Washington Post writer, noted military author and foreign policy contributing editor, who's - who writes that he knows both David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, his biographer, very well. And he says that David Petraeus' sudden departure from the CIA tells us more about the state of our nation than it does about General Petraeus.

He writes: President Barack Obama should not have accepted his resignation. We now seem to care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers. We had years of failed generalship in Iraq, for example, yet left those commanders in place. Petraeus' departure again demonstrates we're strict about intimate behavior, but extraordinarily lax about professional incompetence.

And here's quite a different view, and this one comes from Michael Hastings, the journalist who's 2010 Rolling Stone piece prompted Stanley McChrystal's resignation. You remember that. He says that America should never have trusted David Petraeus. The warning signs about his core dishonesty have been around for years. We can start with the persistent questions critics have raised about his Bronze Star for Valor. Or that in 2004, during the middle of a presidential election, Petraeus wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post supporting President Bush and saying that the Iraq policy was working. It wasn't, but Bush repaid the general's policy advocacy by giving him the top job in the war three years later.

So there's two very different views. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's try and get just a couple of more calls in here before the end of the hour and go to Roger, who is calling in from Commerce, Michigan.



ROGER: Again, my condolences you being stuck with this story.


ROGER: What pretty much is that, OK, the FBI, they did their job. Now someone having an affair at such a high-level secret position, such as the CIA, that's a security risk. Yes, they did their job. The guy did the honorable thing, he resigned. The story's clear. Why they continue to sensationalize about it? And as far as the other general, well, let the feds and the other investigators do their job, stop speculating on it. And then once they come up with the results, OK. Then deal the consequences. Again, story over. You report on something else instead of continue to sensationalization of the sex triangles and stuff that - which is all seems to be all it is...


ROGER: ... sensationalization and hype.

LYDEN: Well, Roger, thank you for that. I do think that the - this kind of, you know, this morning, I heard one of our veteran military correspondents, Tom Bowman here, say that - say on our MORNING EDITION segment that he found this mindboggling. The biggest event of a long career in terms of what had happened in our military. And I do think that examining behavior and its consequences at that level. We were talking about the hubris syndrome. Do top commanders sometimes feel out of step in a sort of cloak of hubris from what goes on on the ground?

And let's just get one more, very quick call in from Pensacola, Florida, Chuck.

CHUCK: Like a grinding noise? (technical difficulties)

LYDEN: Hello, Chuck? Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHUCK: And so we got 5,000 miles off of here, like that...

LYDEN: Chuck?

CHUCK: Thank you.

LYDEN: I think he's not there. Finally then, one last comment. This one from Michael Gerson, pondering the hidden flaws and conflicted natures of many of our national leaders, in today's Washington Post, writing: There seems to be some connection between self-confidence, charisma and personal recklessness. For some, it's the expression of hubris, the thrill of living by a different set of rules than normal mortals. For Petraeus, it seems more like hamartia, the fatal flaw or error of an honorable man, resulting in disproportionate misfortune. This is the essence of tragedy. In this case, a tragedy for himself, his family and his country.

Well, thank you, everyone who weighed in on this Petraeus scandal. We really appreciate it. And tomorrow, Neal Conan is back with Political Junkie Ken Rudin and all the latest from President Obama's first press conference since his re-election. So join them for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.