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Petraeus--an Achilles weakness, but no heel page 2

Date published: 11/16/2012


In the military, sexual intrigue can undermine morale and discipline. Adultery can land you in prison for up to a year--though the rule is seldom enforced in the absence of other crimes such as lying to superiors or disobeying orders. In the intelligence world, sex has long been used as bait and blackmail--the "honey trap"--though I'd imagine that plain old infidelity at the CIA is not unknown or uniformly punished.

By all accounts, Petraeus' personal failure did not involve the abuse of power, criminal acts, or security breaches. But his case also demonstrates how messy infidelity can quickly become--messy enough to involve harassing emails and to attract the attention of the FBI. People at their most ardent are also at their least rational. This is most damaging in fields, such as intelligence, where the essence of leadership is judgment.

Petraeus might have fought for his job. America's 42nd president, after all, once did the same. Instead, Petraeus admitted to showing "extremely poor judgment." It is hard to argue with him. "Such behavior," he told the employees of the CIA, "is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours." After a career dedicated to high standards, Petraeus chose to apply those standards to himself.

The rest of us, unfortunately, are left without the services of an exceptional public servant. We are also left to ponder the conflicted nature of many successful leaders. There seems to be some connection between self-confidence, charisma, and personal recklessness.

For some, it is 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.

Yet an exceptional life cannot be reduced to its lowest moment. Petraeus' judgment was poor. His career was needlessly shortened. But nothing that Petraeus has contributed to his nation has been undone.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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