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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Petraeus Comeback Tour

He survived the indignities of the Obama years, but for what purpose?

General Petraeus Visits Field Base in Kandahar Province
Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

New York/Washington, D.C.

David Petraeus walks with a permanent stoop. I first caught sight of him this past October on the Upper East Side coming down Lexington Avenue, head and shoulders sloped eagerly forward as his feet jerked his body along with a jaunty confidence. When he reached his endpoint at the 92nd Street Y, a little crowd of Petraeus watchers huddling outside the entrance recognized his funny frame and began chattering to themselves. One woman locked eyes with him and, ignoring the retired four-star general’s security guard, approached. She murmured words of praise as she presented his latest book open to its title page. Petraeus grinned and reached inside his jacket for a ballpoint pen. He propped the book on a railing and signed it with studied deliberation.

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This was the beginning of the Petraeus comeback tour. His new book, his first with a trade press, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, had been published the day before. With his co-author, the British historian Andrew Roberts, Petraeus had completed a pre-publication lightning tour of England and negotiated his way through the excerpts and interviews and every other duty that accompanies a serious publishing endeavor. But this night was the one that really counted. This was to be Petraeus’s debut as a real public intellectual. The 92Y bills itself as the top spot in New York to witness “conversations with the world’s foremost thought leaders to deepen understanding and engage both the mind and spirit of our audiences.” It is a place where serious people talk about serious things. And who better to do that, remarked the 92Y’s executive director of events, Susan Engel, than General David H. Petraeus, that great soldier-statesman, and Lord Andrew Roberts Baron of Belgravia, who, she noted in afterthought, has pumped out so many “essential reads” in the past two decades. 

Earlier that week, the Wall Street Journal published an ecstatic review of the book—“the best one-volume study of conventional warfare in the nuclear age” that “sets a new benchmark in understanding modern war.” While the event’s moderator, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, rattled off these adulatory phrases, it became clear that Petraeus had been craving this treatment for a long time. New York City! Here, at last, after he shouldered so much of the blame for two unpopular wars and then resigned in disgrace from a criminally short tenure as CIA director, the world was finally recognizing his brilliance without adding any nasty qualifications. The general wiggled his feet with glee and waved to the people in the front rows.  

When his turn came to speak, Petraeus cracked a joke. “I understand that the warm-up acts for tonight were Michelle Obama on one night,” he deadpanned, referring to the 92Y’s schedule, “and then Nancy Pelosi on another.” He was full of jokes, it seemed, often at the expense of Roberts. After offering some praise to Roberts’s biography of Winston Churchill, a little paean which elicited scattered applause, Petraeus cut the clapping short with a sharp remark—“I didn’t know your daughter was here.” And later, he ribbed Roberts for the English army’s blunders in the Revolutionary War. If only those pompous Brits had a General Petraeus at the head: “They could have won, if they had a competent counterinsurgency campaign.” There were other jokes, too, notably a poke at Roberts for his being raised to the peerage in Belgravia, the neighborhood in London most conspicuously dominated by Russian and Saudi mobsters. 

But Roberts bore it all well. Anyway, he also had a joke that could only make the general wince. In answer to a question about how he and Petraeus divided the work among themselves, he drawled out the same response he gave to his editors at Harper: “I said, ‘Well, David is going to write about all the countries he’s invaded...and I’ll fill in the rest.’” 

All joking aside, that’s essentially how Conflict is structured. Except for two long chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as parts of one on Vietnam—“He would have invaded it if he’d been the right age!” Roberts exclaimed—the book is clearly the work of the historian, with generous help from his research assistant. It’s written with an affected breeziness, the style of a man who wants his readers to believe that when he’s not poring over archival documents, he spends lazy Sunday afternoons taking in the financial papers—I at least can think of no other reason for him to pad his narrative with references to the ephemera of columnists such as Janan Ganesh, Mark Helprin, and Adam Tooze. 

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Petraeus, by contrast, seems to take his part rather more seriously. (It’s his reputation on the line after all.) His chapter on Iraq—the war in which he saw the most combat, and, it should be added, success—reads in part like a collection of exculpating anecdotes that he has no doubt been polishing over the years at dinner parties and on the speaker circuit. In the Middle East, he makes clear, he was just a soldier; he had little interest in “why wars break out.” It was winning them that mattered. 

That’s why, he says, when, during the final gathering of commanders before the invasion, he asked if the American-led political coalition “could provide additional information about what would happen after we got to Baghdad and toppled the regime, I was told, ‘You just get us to Baghdad, Dave, we’ll take it from there.’” He did as ordered, but even after he led the 101st Airborne to victory after victory in 2003, he still wondered about the big ideas. When, for instance, his division took the city of Najaf in central Iraq, “I radioed my boss, Lieutenant General Wallace, that I had good news and bad news. ‘The good news,’ I reported, ‘is that we own Najaf.’ ‘What’s the bad news?’ he asked. ‘The bad news,’ I responded, ‘is that we own Najaf. What do you want us to do with it?’” At every turn early in the war, there seemed to be no clear answers, a frustrating state of affairs that gave rise to his famous, oft-repeated line, uttered to the journalist Rick Atkinson: “So, tell me where this ends?”

The 2007 Surge was, as everyone remembers, Petraeus’s signal achievement in the war, and the one on which his reputation as a strategist still rests. His big idea then was counterinsurgency, a brainy concept derived in part from T.E. Lawrence. (As Iraq spiraled out of control in 2004, Petraeus found himself rereading Seven Pillars of Wisdom; some chunks of Counterinsurgency, his Army field manual written in 2006, are riffs on Lawrence.) When asked once to explain counterinsurgency, Petraeus summarized it with Lawrence’s words: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands,” he said. “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” Of course, unlike in 1917, Iraq wasn’t really the Arabs’ war—hence the need to ship more than twenty thousand American troops into the country to restore order. Petraeus still regards that decision as a bloody necessity. “If the population cannot be controlled and protected,” he observed, “all other initiatives will come to naught.”

The Surge is ancient history, but in its time, Petraeus’s daring and success—though the success proved temporary—made him one of the most talked about people in Washington, D.C. Some speculated that he would bring peace to the Middle East. Others said he should run for president. I was in fourth grade; I wanted to be him. Of course, not everyone was satisfied, especially in the early months of the operation. When Petraeus was called before Congress to testify about the Surge, the activist organization MoveOn.org took out a full-page ad in the paper of record (at a discounted rate) attacking his integrity. Petraeus claimed he was not bothered by the smear campaign—“General Betray Us”—but nothing can ever really be forgiven. Even today, the memory still irks him: “The New York Times is not my all-time favorite,” he said. “They gave a cut rate to MoveOn.org to criticize me personally in a full page ad—the day of the biggest testimony of my life.”

Petraeus’s Afghanistan chapter reads in much the same manner as his treatment of Iraq, and he acknowledges that the situation was much worse. After the September 11 attacks, American troops suddenly found themselves obliged to implement far-reaching decisions concerning a country of whose languages they were ignorant, whose customs they had never studied, whose religions were a puzzle to them, whose politics a labyrinth, whose history a mystery. “Little thought had been put into what would happen once the invasion succeeded,” Petraeus writes. “The pace of the war outstripped the pace of policy.” He laments that nation-building, that much-maligned Bush-era experiment, became an “unavoidable” necessity, and that by the time he was put in charge of the American operation in 2010 (his mission: Surge 2.0), Afghanistan had become “a nation-building project on steroids.” 

Yet nothing seemed to work. The state of the country remained awful: corrupt and corrupting. And of course, like every other American general sent to clean it up, Petraeus was defeated in Afghanistan and tarnished in his defeat. His specific actions are largely forgotten now, but Petraeus firmly believes that Barack Obama’s drawdown announcement (which, paradoxically, came right on the heels of his surge announcement) was the moment when his chances were ruined. He’s still bitter. In Conflict, he saves his harshest criticism for those who cheered on the 2021 withdrawal. “The reality was that the vast majority of the American people, although tired of hearing about ‘forever wars,’ had not sacrificed a great deal during the twenty years of the Afghanistan War,” the general fumes. Had he his way, the United States would never have left Afghanistan; American troops would still be there, occupying the country indefinitely, much like they do South Korea, with the goal not being victory but maintenance—keeping the global empire intact.

Underlying Petraeus’s analyses of both these wars—and, in a looser way, Roberts’s analyses of the other conflicts since World War II—are what Petraeus calls the four major tasks of strategic leadership. They are the following:

  1. The leader must perceive his strategic situation clearly and craft an appropriate response; in essence, he has to get the big ideas right.
  2. He must communicate those big ideas effectively to everyone under his command.
  3. He must oversee the implementation of the big ideas, relentlessly and with determination.
  4. He must constantly re-evaluate the big ideas and adapt and refine them, so that he can perform the first three tasks again and again and again. 

These tasks are a catechism to Petraeus. He refers to them consistently as the standard against which all battlefield (and political) leaders must be measured. Three nights in a row I witnessed him recite the catechism—first at the 92Y, then at Politics and Prose, and finally at the George Washington Presidential Library—delivered each time in the same earnest cadence and in the same black suit. With Roberts lending him some of his Anglo-inflected credibility, Petraeus enlarged on his doctrine, drawing from current events to illustrate the fact that, across history, virtually every leader can be judged according to his criteria. Volodymyr Zelensky, for instance, is a successful strategic leader, “Churchill with an iPhone.” Vladimir Putin is not. (Petraeus noted with some regret that the Russian president beat him for Time’s “Person of the Year” award in 2007.) In the Israel conflict, Petraeus said, the Israeli forces showed true strategic leadership in responding swiftly to Hamas’s surprise attack. Hamas made a strategic mistake in attacking at all. Roberts nodded in agreement: “That tends to wind up, almost always, to be a mistake for the surprise attackers.”

It’s a neat trick, identifying winners and losers from the sidelines while presenting one’s observations as a serious contribution to world affairs. And it’s a trick that many retired men of action attempt to pull in the twilight of their lives. The most successful of these was arguably Henry Kissinger, about whom Petraeus boasts on multiple nights of his tour as having just met for lunch (one of Kissinger’s last lunches, as it happened). The former secretary of state, after reigning supreme in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, was shut out of official politics for the second half of his career. But he made up for his disadvantage by reinventing himself a roving statesman, intervening in conflicts around the world and writing numerous books on leadership—all in the service of advancing the ideas, which, had he any formal power, he would have been implementing from a government office.

Petraeus is auditioning for a similar position. It’s one of the few he hasn’t tried. Since his resignation from the CIA he has performed the usual roles of the washed up eminence: he has played college professor, investment firm chairman, and NGO board member. Donald Trump considered him for secretary of state, but, given how Petraeus’s past government service ended, there was never really a chance of it coming off. (The general, for what it’s worth, did not vote for Trump; he has not voted in any election since 2002.) Petraeus has played all of his post-career characters more or less competently, but never with the same panache as on the battlefield. But maybe this new character, the public intellectual, will be different. Maybe this time he’ll make a mark. The situation is actually rather desperate: Petraeus is all but barred from appointed office and another shot at military glory; his only path to greatness now is through the exercises of his mind. 

And yet something seems contrived in the general’s star turn. Nowhere at any point on the tour did anyone ask him about his resignation or the affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, that led to it. Perhaps some audiences still retain a certain bashfulness about prying into a great man’s sex life, but I doubt it. More likely they are content to let Petraeus pretend it never happened, even after his downfall was one of the most dramatic occurrences of the Obama era. He had been director of the CIA for a little more than a year when, just days after the 2012 election, he admitted to an extramarital affair, and, worse—at least in the eyes of the state—having given Broadwell access to his official email and classified documents. 

The more intelligence officials dug into the matter, the stranger it became: not only Petraeus, but also General John Allen (Petraeus’s successor in Afghanistan) and General James Mattis (Petraeus’s replacement at CENTCOM) had for months been party to a bizarre and bawdy email correspondence involving not just Broadwell, but also another woman, Jill Kelley, a socialite in Tampa with a strange amounts of access to top military commanders. The affair ended well for no one. Petraeus resigned. Allen was forced into an early retirement. Mattis, though on the periphery of the improprieties, was dogged for years by his involvement. As for Kelley and Broadwell, both were ground through a grueling FBI investigation, and, though no charges were pressed, both claim they are irrevocably damaged. 

With the publication of Conflict, it is perhaps profitable to reconsider the affair according to Petraeus’s catechism. Did the general perceive his strategic situation clearly and craft an appropriate response? Did he communicate well? Was he able to implement his strategy? And, as the ground shifted under him, did he consistently re-evaluate and adapt and refine his thinking? No, no, no, and no. When carefully reviewing the facts, it is impossible not to understand the inflection point of General Petraeus’s career as anything other than a failure in strategic leadership.

Petraeus got the big ideas wrong from the beginning. Broadwell first met him in 2006 when he delivered a guest lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She was a graduate student, a West Point alumna, and an unabashed social climber. She introduced herself; he gave her his card; the flood of emails began. Two years later, Broadwell told Petraeus that for her dissertation she was writing a case study on his leadership abilities. Petraeus, flattered, put her to the test in the same way he had so many of his other mentees: he challenged her to a race. (Among his subordinates in Iraq Petraeus had earned the title of “most competitive man on the planet.”) The two met at the Pentagon and ran to the Washington Monument, at a six-minute-mile pace. Broadwell had meant to interview Petraeus, but soon, she said, she was fighting just to keep up with him: “the talk turned to heavy breathing.”  

Petraeus was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, and Broadwell soon joined him. By then, her dissertation had become a book project, a biography of the general. She requested full access, and Petraeus gave it. They went for runs together before dawn; they attended briefings together; they shared documents and—who can say?—made love. Broadwell adored Petraeus, and he encouraged her worship. Perhaps he thought it would make for a better book. Soon, friends started noticing changes in his behavior. When Petraeus returned from Afghanistan, he seemed younger, fitter, more urbane. He professed a newfound appreciation for Enya.

When considering a strategic leader, it is important to remember that his thinking in one area affects his thinking in every area. Petraeus got the big ideas about his private life wrong; it was only natural that he would start making mistakes in his work as well. The risk was evident from the day that Obama decided to replace General Stanley McChrystal with Petraeus in Afghanistan. Mark Howell, Petraeus’s security guard since the Surge, saw an almost alarming eagerness in the general’s eyes, the face he had worn throughout his time commanding the troops in Iraq. “It’s that undeniable look in sports where the player is in the zone and he says, ‘Give me the ball, I want the ball,” Howell said. It is natural to be eager when one is young and in love, but to be eager and in love and old is a treacherous game. In Afghanistan, it was sometimes remarked that the general was losing his edge, that try as he might, he could not be the man he was in 2007. And Petraeus on some level knew it too. He frequently had to remind himself where he was—many of his PowerPoints included a slide reading “Afghanistan Is Not Iraq”—but often to no avail. One time during a meeting with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, Petraeus compared Kabul a little too closely with Baghdad. Afterward, one of his aides dressed down the general: “Don’t talk about Iraq so much,” he said. “It might be a great mental exercise for you to try not thinking about Iraq at all.” 

If a strategic leader bungles the first of the four tasks, there is no hope for him in the remaining three. Petraeus kept the affair from his wife and close friends, even when Broadwell began demanding too much of him. He didn’t lie, but he refrained from telling the truth. When he assumed control over the CIA in 2011, rather than come clean early and save himself public humiliation, Petraeus continued to carry on with Broadwell in a clandestine arrangement. The two would write each other dirty emails in the drafts folders of an anonymous account. She called him “Peaches.”

Soon, Broadwell had access to Petraeus’s whole world, his correspondence, his contacts. The more she took from him, the harder it became for him to take any of it back. Not that her access shows in the biography: All In: The Education of General David Petraeus is a hagiographic document, its tone best characterized in the mocking words of Jon Stewart: “Is he awesome or incredibly awesome?” And when the relationship between Broadwell and Petraeus soured, she began blackmailing him. Petraeus was trapped. He had made a massive failure in strategic thinking.

Ultimately, his downfall was ordained in a series of steakhouses. When Petraeus was commander of CENTCOM, he and his family had picked up a habit of double dates with the Kelley family. These continued after Petraeus became CIA director. Jill Kelley was not Petraeus’s mistress by any means; she was the sort of code switching woman unique to military circles who considers her masculinity feminine. She made Broadwell jealous anyway. One night in April 2012 at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, Petraeus and Kelley were arguing over who had bigger quads. The drink flowed freely, and, in his enthusiasm, Petraeus grabbed Kelley’s leg and spilled wine all over her dress. A month later, they all met again at the Cosmos Club in Dupont Circle, but this time, Petraeus was nervous, looking over his shoulder the whole evening. Something had disturbed him in the interim. By the time they all rendezvoused in June at The Prime Rib in Foggy Bottom, everyone was freaked out. All but Petraeus admitted to receiving threatening, anonymous emails about Petraeus’s love life; no one but Petraeus knew why. In August, they met again at the same steakhouse, and Petraeus revealed to Kelley that Broadwell was behind the emails, and his eyes told her that he had been trapped by his own sin. 

The next day Petraeus and Kelley went paddleboarding under Key Bridge. She asked him if he was having an affair with Broadwell. He lied. And over the next few months, his lie consumed him. Kelley had called the FBI to look into the threatening emails, and, as the investigation closed in, Petraeus sent her increasingly frantic emails begging her to call off the dogs. But it was too late. He was already doomed. He had counted on his control over Broadwell; he had been wrong. And he had been wrong about his control over the CIA as well. As the FBI wrapped up its investigation in September 2012, terrorists in Benghazi attacked the American diplomatic compound and a CIA annex, killing four Americans. Suddenly there were also political reasons for Petraeus to pay for his indiscretion.  

When Petraeus announced his resignation in November 2012, the irony of the affair was delicious for his enemies. After all the fighting and politicking, they were right: in strict moral terms, Petraeus was a traitor. And yet, in another sense, a more cerebral one that might appeal to a man who—in Broadwell’s phrase—considered himself a soldier-scholar-statesman, Petraeus was guilty only of a weird form of self-loyalty. His actions were those of the professor who falls for a student in his freshman seminar. Broadwell had laid herself before Petraeus; he had attempted to create her in his image. Put another way, Petraeus, like every self-possessed man when allowed his own desires, had played Pygmalion—unaware that in so many of those old stories, the statue crushes its lover in its embrace. 

It is a strange thing now to read Petraeus’s emails from the hours and days after his resignation. “Well, I guess she can’t compromise me,” he wrote to Kelley hours after making the announcement. Later, he felt regret: “Bottom line: I did something terrible and dishonorable.” Then, a desire for restitution: “I screwed up terribly, Jill, and needed to try and do the honorable thing after having done the dishonorable thing.” Then determination: “We’ll get through this, but it will be hard.” Calamity tends to have a generalizing effect, and in those early days, Petraeus could foresee his suffering only in a monumental way and not in its inexorable, annihilating detail.

But on that detail, the record is silent. For a while after he resigned, Petraeus avoided going out in public, eating at restaurants, and giving interviews. “Hang tough, lie low, focus on family, and keep your head down,” he said. He remained married. He stopped running and instead became a cyclist. There was talk in the Army, briefly, of stripping him of his rank, but it was decided that the old man was already suffering enough. I suspect he always will be. Even his comeback, if indeed it is a comeback, will always be tinged with the suspicion that it was only allowed at the indulgence of those willing to let a broken man enjoy his last years. After he signed my copy of Conflict, I observed, etched below his hastily scribbled signature, his sign, a series of marks he had inscribed methodically and with deliberation, the reminder of an almost impossible greatness, invisible now to all eyes but his own—four stars.

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