WASHINGTON -- Gen. David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has muddied the carefully crafted narrative of America’s most eminent “soldier-scholar statesman,” allowing unprecedented scrutiny of the policies of a man who was so venerated in Washington that one could be labeled unpatriotic simply for challenging his strategies.
The still-unfolding Petraeus scandal offers space for the most critical look to date of the popular general’s resume, including his blueprint for counterinsurgency, the “surge” tactic he applied to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and the recruiting of Iraqi tribesmen in the battle against al Qaida.
Critics raised serious doubts about those and other projects years ago, but, in public at least, their concerns were steamrolled by a propaganda machine that was designed to protect Petraeus’ military legacy – perhaps even for a future presidential bid.
“The country put him on a big, high pedestal, and he took himself off that pedestal with his own actions,” said retired Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus’ former aide and acting spokesman since the scandal broke. “As he told me, ‘I screwed up.’”
While Boylan and other diehard supporters insist that the general’s military accomplishments endure, more critical voices say that it’s about time his entire record got a closer look. The infallibility of Petraeus, detractors say, was a myth created by his inner circle, nurtured by a sycophantic press corps, swallowed by a fawning government and, ultimately, punctured by his own weakness when it came to an attractive and ambitious devotee.
“I think there’s always a cult of celebrity, a cult of power,” said a Western official who was present at Petraeus’ headquarters in Afghanistan and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
That personality cult made it difficult to criticize Petraeus on the national stage. Petraeus skillfully worked the media early in the Iraq war to shape his public image as a thoughtful, modern military thinker. As a major general in 2003, Petraeus invited Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Atkinson to accompany him throughout the invasion of Iraq. The journalist’s subsequent book about his two months with Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division left a defining image of the general as someone clearly “entranced by the problem-solving nature of high command.”
Mark Jacobson, a former deputy NATO representative to the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, said it’s too early to determine the extent of Petraeus’ legacy or how this scandal will affect it. A better barometer, he said, will come when the generation of officers that was shaped by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, he added, successfully navigated the challenges there – moves into greater positions of authority.
“That’s when you’re going to see the evolution that began after Sept. 11, 2001, completed,” Jacobson said. “That’s a military that’s more agile, more experienced and more adept.”
From Baghdad, Petraeus pushed the 101st north to the restive city of Mosul, where the general was credited with bringing stability through counterinsurgency methods – a type of warfare the conventional army typically shunned. Petraeus became the face of the counterinsurgency renaissance, his ideas heralded as groundbreaking. In fact, they were old strategies that had been rejected by the military in the post-Vietnam period, according to military historians.