BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The rhetoric surrounding David Petraeus’ fall from grace has been nothing short of epic. The tawdry affair of the general and the biographer has assumed the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with a tragically flawed hero and an evil temptress.
The media has been gushing, even fawning, in its description of Petraeus’ accomplishments, and his disgrace is being portrayed as a national disaster.
The reality is much more mundane, as is the man at the center of all the fuss. His fall from grace is a personal tragedy, and he and his family will have to deal with that. Petraeus was a fine officer with a keen mind and an impressive work ethic. But he is not the miracle worker that is now being painted.
Even in disgrace, Petraeus is indispensable. The just-resigned CIA director was called to testify Friday at congressional hearings about the September attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Much of his reputation rests on his performance during the war in Iraq. When Petraeus arrived in Baghdad in February 2007, the country was one of the most violent places on Earth. He oversaw the surge, which cut down on the killing and provided time and political cover for the United States to withdraw.
It did not, however, pacify the country. Iraq today is witnessing increasing levels of violence, much of which goes unremarked by the American public since U.S. troops are no longer in harm’s way there.
“Under General Petraeus’ stewardship, the overall violence in Iraq was reduced,” said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project who has written extensively on Iraq and Afghanistan. “Even if this dip was temporary, it gave the United States space to withdraw.”
In Afghanistan, where Petraeus took over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal in July 2010 and handed over command to Gen. John Allen a year later, his legacy will be much more problematic.
“Petraeus was very successful in creating the illusion of success,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a writer and researcher who has produced several books on Afghanistan. “He was very successful at playing the media, even when the facts did not add up.”
All too often, Petraeus’ claims did not correspond to reality.
In December 2010, the CIA released a National Intelligence Estimate with a very downbeat evaluation of the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban was making significant gains, said the report, and large swaths of the country were in danger of falling to the enemy.
Meanwhile, Petraeus was touting the “fragile and reversible” gains that were being made.
“Well, most of them were reversed,” says Foust.
During Petraeus’ tenure, violence in Afghanistan actually increased. He more than doubled the number of “night raids,” the kill/capture missions that he claimed were decimating the Taliban’s command structure. But these missions caused untold hardship for Afghans, who were frequently caught in the crossfire, and spurred Afghan President Hamid Karzai to all but declare war on NATO.
“Petraeus was fond of metrics,” Foust said. “He would release the body counts, and claim that these kill/capture missions were the most successful tactic in the war. In reality, a distressingly high percentage of those captured were released within days.”
That number topped 80 percent, according to researcher Gareth Porter.
But NATO in Afghanistan, with Petraeus at its head, would seldom admit mistakes.
In one widely publicized incident, Petraeus continued to insist that an airstrike that killed 17 people had targeted the right person, even after it had been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the supposed target was still alive and well, and that those killed had been election workers on a campaign trip.
In PBS’ “Frontline” program, correspondent Stephen Grey asked the general pointblank: “Can I just ask you how that operation came into being: What made you think this was the man that you were targeting?”
Petraeus answered firmly, staring straight into the camera: “Well, we didn’t think in this case, with respect, we knew. We had days and days of what’s called ‘the unblinking eye,’ confirmed by other forms of intelligence, that informed us that this — there’s no question about who this individual was.”
According to Foust, who recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic magazine called “Myopia: How Counter-Terrorism Has Blinded Our Intelligence Community,” this is a common affliction among spies.
“People at a sufficiently high level of the intelligence community become so focused on their internal channels that they discount anything that is outside of it,” he said. “Even when that information may be more reliable.”
For Strick, it is even simpler.
“Petraeus was caught red-handed getting it wrong and still would not back down,” said Strick. “He was intent on allowing the operation to have the appearance of success in order to give the United States the opportunity to leave Afghanistan while saving face.”
This, says Strick, is one of the reasons for the schadenfreude that many old Afghans hands are feeling.
“Some are rubbing their hands in glee at Petraeus’ downfall,” he said. “It is the difference between his purported self-discipline and the messiness, the sloppiness of real life.”
There certainly has been quite a bit of breast-beating among those in the media who contributed to creating the “King David” myth. Spencer Ackerman, a national security and defense blogger for Wired magazine, recently posted a piece on the magazine’s website titled “How I Was Drawn into the Cult of David Petraeus.”
He details how the myth-making machine operated, the stroking of sympathetic journalists, the exclusion of those more critical.
“A lot of the journalism around Petraeus gave him a pass, and I wrote too much of it,” he said. “Writing critically about a public figure you come to admire is a journalistic challenge.”
Jon Lee Anderson, writing in The New Yorker, was even more direct: “[Petraeus’] lionization by admiring and opportunistic politicians and fawning journalists and biographers … has been craven and boundless,” he writes. “In Afghanistan … there was no Petraeus miracle. In spite of an Iraq-style surge and a much-vaunted counterinsurgency strategy overseen by Petraeus, the Taliban have proven unbeatable.”
Perhaps Petraeus is not yet finished. As history has shown, sexual peccadilloes are no barrier to high office — think of Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and even Thomas Jefferson."