When former United States Army General David Petraeus resigned last week as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he became the next in a long line of American politicians who have seen a sex scandal lead to their demise. From Bill Clinton to John Edwards to Arnold Schwarzenegger, many men in politics have engaged in affairs in their private lives that damaged their reputations and lead to the end of their careers.
What makes Petraeus stand out is the fact he actually resigned from his post as a result of the affair. Clinton notably remained in office despite many calls from political opponents to resign, Schwarzenegger did the same, and Edwards continued his campaign for president amidst his scandal, though his presidential hopes were reduced to nil.
That Petraeus would resign when others had not brought the conspiracy theorists out in full force, with explanations usually related to the upcoming Congressional hearings on this year’s Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States Embassy in Libya. Petraeus was scheduled to testify in the hearings as Director of the CIA, and now will not, despite Rep. Peter King describing Petraeus as “an absolutely necessary witness.”
Conspiracy theories aside, it is unfortunate that arguably the most respected American general since World War II resigned his post as a result of the affair. Unless national security was breached because of the affair (and there is not yet indication it was, though an FBI investigation into the matter is still ongoing), Petraeus did not need to resign, as the matter was a personal one, unrelated to his role as CIA Director.
It is important to note that Petraeus is not accused of any crime; he and his mistress, Paula Broadwell, were both consenting adults. At issue is the level of access Broadwell had to Petraeus’ email, and whether security secrets may have been compromised as a result of this access.
In contrast, former President Clinton engaged in an affair with a subordinate, White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Sexual relations with a subordinate in the workplace is considered inappropriate at best and illegal at worst. To be clear, given the specifics of his circumstances Clinton was also right not to resign. However, his transgression was objectively just as morally hazardous, if not more so, than that of Petraeus.
Why, then, would it be appropriate for Petraeus to resign but not Clinton? The FBI investigation may still reveal serious national security concerns, which would clarify his resignation, but until it does Petraeus would have been right to remain in his position, despite the public scrutiny on him.
This scrutiny is the result of society’s fixation with cheating scandals, the delving into the private lives of public figures for the sordid details. Tiger Woods is another who committed no crime in his private life. He engaged in numerous affairs with women while married, and while that may not be morally right, it is not a crime and had even less to do with his ability to play golf. Yet, he needed to call a press conference to explain his transgressions and apologize publicly.
Woods is only a golfer though; Petraeus is a government official with rumored political aspirations. His job performance affects the lives of the public much more than Woods’ golf game, and his political future does rely on the public’s opinion of him.
However, when evaluating Petraeus as CIA Director, there are much more important concerns than his private life. Just as Clinton was viewed as a good president by many who disapproved of his sexual transgressions, Petraeus was perfectly capable of being a great CIA director despite the poor judgment he showed in his private life.
The scandal primarily serves to distract the public from far more pressing issues related to Petraeus and national security. For example, the CIA regularly conducts drone strikes in Pakistan against the wishes of the Pakistani government. These attacks are largely ignored in American political discussions; they were not at all an issue in the recent presidential race, for example. Yet they are much more important when discussing Petraeus’ role as director of the CIA than his relationship with Broadwell.
Petraeus committed adultery, and it is appropriate to make judgments on his personal character based on this; however, there are far more important issues related to his ability to lead the CIA, and this was not enough for him to resign compared to those issues.
Billy Rainsford is an assistant Op/Ed editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .