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Op-Ed: Petraeus Affair Teaches A Valuable Lesson


And now, to the "Opinion Page." And you probably know, by now, that Gen. David Petraeus resigned last week as director of the CIA. He admitted to an extramarital affair with a woman who has since been identified as his biographer. Her name is Paula Broadwell and like Petraeus, she was a West Point cadet who trained as a parachutist; and she was an aspiring officer whom Petraeus hoped to mentor. In a piece for Slate, Fred Kaplan writes: Paula Broadwell may be, among other things, a case study in the danger of getting too close to the swooning sirens of would-be intellectual proteges.

We want to hear from servicemen and women. What do you think will be David Petraeus' legacy - 800-989-8255 is our number; our email address is talk@npr.org; and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Fred Kaplan joins us now, from our bureau in New York. He's author of the forthcoming book "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War." Fred Kaplan, welcome. Nice to have you with us.

FRED KAPLAN: Thanks, Jacki.

LYDEN: Fred, tell me - how did you know Gen. Petraeus?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, I write a column for Slate magazine, called "War Stories." So I've been covering the war, now, for nearly a decade. And as counterinsurgency became the big doctrine, and Gen. Petraeus was the - sort of human face of that doctrine, I interviewed him a number of times, as well as many of his acolytes and associates, and other commanders.

LYDEN: And he is certainly credited with changing the American way of war; changing, particularly, the way in - the war in Iraq was fought, yes?

KAPLAN: Right. There - you know, there used to be a doctrine called counterinsurgency; also known as nation building, limited war, small wars - that kind of thing. After the war in Vietnam, the establishment U.S. Army threw all of that stuff away. They wanted no part of it, at all. And Gen. Petraeus was kind of the leader of a new generation of officers coming up who, in fact, had experience in these smaller wars; for example, in El Salvador, in Bosnia; not Petraeus, but others, in Somalia, Haiti. They saw this as the war of the future, and they saw that becoming retrained in this kind of doctrine was going to be necessary. And when the Iraq War turned into an insurgency war, they plotted, really, to reintroduce these ideas. And it coincided with Petraeus' promotion, and the - kind of coming of age, of this new generation of officers.

LYDEN: So he comes back into the field, in Iraq, early in 2007. And is there a different way that he takes command, that you would say is a legacy today in the way that our wars will be fought?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, it really started in 2003, when he was commander of the 101st Airborne Division; and he was in charge of occupying Mosul, in northern Iraq. And he was the only one, among the commanders, who really instituted a nation-building kind of program. I mean, the kinds of things he was doing - and really, completely on his own - were just a dramatic contrast. He was, you know, vetting candidates for political office; he was opening up the border with Syria; he was, you know, opening up newspapers. He was creating all these things, and that became a model of what he then went back to do, when he became overall commander in 2007.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Fred, what does his leadership style owe to George A. Lincoln?

KAPLAN: Well, it's interesting. There was a lot of this - the network that Petraeus cultivated was through a lot of acolytes in the social science department of West Point, which was founded in 1947 - after the war - by a colonel named George Lincoln, who had been General George Marshall's right-hand man during the war; and in fact, he was a brigadier general. And he looked around him and he thought - you know - after the war, as America gets these global responsibilities, we're going to have to have an officer corps that knows more about, you know, how to aim a machine gun straight. We're going to have to have a - some people, anyway, who know something about politics, international relations, economics. So he took a demotion to colonel, and he went back to West Point and set up a department of social science.

And then he did something really interesting. He said, OK, listen. The best students - the best social science students, you're going to go off to graduate school at a civilian university, at West Point expense. You're going to earn a Ph.D. You're going to come back here and teach for three years. And then I'm going to send you out, and you're going to have good jobs someplace. And a whole generation - you know, practically every kind of smart gen - Army general you've ever heard of, came out of this. In fact, they called themselves the Lincoln Brigade, or the Soc Mafia, or the West Point Mafia.

And Gen. Petraeus, although he entered West Point after Lincoln had died, was very much both a part - and a continuer - of this tradition of building mentorships and proteges.

LYDEN: Yeah. We're talking with the writer Fred Kaplan, who also writes the "War Stories" column at Slate. And we're talking about the legacy of Gen. David Petraeus, who - as I think we all know - has now resigned from his CIA position very suddenly; but for a long time before that, was, of course, a four-star general and leader of the troops. Let's go now to Josh, who's calling us from Pensacola, Florida. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Josh.

JOSH: Thank you very much for having me on. I'm currently an active-duty Naval officer. I was - but I grew up when Gen. Petraeus was initially appointed to command in Iraq. And I didn't graduate from college until 2011, so almost at the end of his military career. But from my observations of him leading the war effort, it seemed to me that he was one of the few military officers who really - sort of saw the writing on the wall in Iraq, right at the very beginning. I think I remember reading an interview that he had, when he was commanding the 101st Airborne; where he turns to a reporter and asks him, you know, how does this end? And I think he'll be recognized as a man who saw a lot of these problems well before they became known in the public lexicon.

LYDEN: All right. Thank you for sharing that, Josh. Fred Kaplan, you know, so prescient in the field, asking so many of the right questions, asking questions that, you know, other officers really seem not to want to hear, and then comes this affair. You've been writing about that since it became public on Friday. And you said the affair was shocking, but not so unfathomable. Why?

KAPLAN: Well, the interest, I think, about this woman, Paula Broadwell, is she - the first time they met, according to her own account of it, in a book that she wrote - they met in 2006. She was a graduate student of Harvard. He was still at Leavenworth. He came to - gave a speech about counterinsurgency. She approached him. They had a conversation. They got to know each other. Initially, Petraeus saw Paula Broadwell as another example of someone that he would like to mentor. He mentored dozens, if not hundreds, of officers. You know, she was in grad school; she'd been at West Point; she was very athletic; she'd been a paratrooper. It was like a mirror image.

But, you know, what everybody has known for a long time - I mean, rumors of an affair had been going on, for quite a while. I didn't believe them; I don't know anybody who did believe them. But what was obvious, to everyone, was that she was absolutely gaga over him. And, you know, things happen when that - and even some of his aides were quite disturbed when she came over to watch him in action, in Afghanistan. She was given an unusual degree of access; treated with much more intimacy, and a sense of being let in on all kinds of things, than even most reporters. Petraeus got along with reporters very well. He cultivated them. He liked hanging around with them. But he also saw them as - what in military jargon, would be called information operations. It was a way of getting out the message. He understood this in a way that many generals did not.

But Paula Broadwell was cutting a completely different thing. And also, I'm sure that everybody who's listening has seen pictures of her now- you know, very beautiful, making no bones about it; you know, dressing in tight outfits, this kind of thing. I think that Gen. Petraeus had never really been, you know, approached and wooed by someone quite like this, before.

LYDEN: Like that before. Let's take another call. Bruce is calling from - I think it's Visalia, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Bruce.

BRUCE: Yes, thank you for having me on.

LYDEN: Thanks. What do you think Gen. David Petraeus' legacy is going to be? What memory would you like to share?

BRUCE: Well, I'm an older veteran - Army veteran - from the 1966 through 1968 era, where warfare was fought on a totally different basis - large divisions; and the idea of small, organized groups that have to deal with insurgencies, was really not in the picture. I think that the general changed the attitudes within the military, at the field commander and higher basis, to be able to more effectively fight the wars that we saw after that. And I think that this one incidence of bad judgment, it pales in comparison with the changes that he instituted within the armed services. And I think that it's going to be a small bump in the road, as far as his legacy is in concern.

LYDEN: All right. Thank you for sharing that memory, Bruce. Let's take another call. Mark is calling from Tampa, Florida. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Mark.

MARK: Thank you for taking my call. I want to thank Mr. Kaplan for starting to paint a picture of the general, and the kind of men like him. My son is at Central Command, worked with and for the general; and is bereft, I think, at the loss. In another life, a David Petraeus would have been a corporate leader at the highest levels, a diplomat; and he was all those things. And he jumped out of perfectly good airplanes. So to underscore this loss, you can't use a heavy enough pencil. It's just - these are extraordinary people, doing extraordinary things. And I know why he has to leave because it's just the way these things are. But it's just sad. And my son is going to miss him.

LYDEN: Thank you so much for that comment, Mark. Fred Kaplan, do you see - you know, we talk about all this mentoring, all these proteges; an affair that by your description of it, even, sort of seems to have been there in plain sight. Is there anyone emerging who - sort of wears that mantle? Or maybe there's a lot of people.

Well, he did mentor a lot of people. For example, there is another general now, who's rather well-known, named H.R. McMaster, who is the - now the commander of the Center for Armor and Infantry Excellence, or something like that, in Forth Benning. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: McMaster is commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, at Fort Benning.] He was a protege of Gen. Petraeus in Iraq. He did - commanded one of the first successful counterinsurgency campaigns in Tal Afar, which was written about quite a lot.

KAPLAN: General Odierno, who is the Army chief of staff, who used to be sort of the living embodiment of the old style of general officer - who'd just bash down doors, and shot people - he became kind of a convert. He is trying, very much, to keep the counterinsurgency ideas alive in the Army. But, you know, there has always been a struggle within the Army. Petraeus - this idea for - as one of your listeners pointed out - this was an idea that was not really widely accepted within the Army. And Petraeus himself, while he has a very large body of followers and loyal acolytes, was also disliked by a lot of more traditional generals. They saw him as being too much of a showboat; too much of an intellectual; taking credit for things too much. And this - there - I am quite positive that there is quite a lot of schadenfreude going on in certain circles of the Army, at this point.And given the failure of the war in Afghanistan - which was kind of the Waterloo of counterinsurgency doctrine - and given pending budget cuts around the military, it's a very open question how enduring the doctrinal legacy that Gen. Petraeus left, will last.

LYDEN: It's very interesting. Let's take another call here. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Tim is calling from Hillsborough, New Jersey. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Tim.

TIM: Thank you. I'd just like to say that I served twice in Afghanistan, and once in Iraq; and I was a full supporter of the general. I believed that whatever he came up with, as far as a plan, I was behind 100 percent. He's a brilliant man. He graduates from West Point, graduates from Princeton; an intellectual - which is not a bad thing in the modern military, for today. I've served 30 years myself, so I understand the whole dynamic. I, too, am an academy grad. So I understand a lot of that. And I was wondering, Mr. Kaplan, how many years did you serve in the military?

KAPLAN: I haven't been in the military.

TIM: OK, because I have a small, slight, and - a feeling that you make a lot of broad generalizations about people that you may not understand fully.

KAPLAN: Well, I will say this - I will say this...


KAPLAN: ...I - any four-star general you've ever heard of, I've interviewed; more than most of them - many of them, more than once.

LYDEN: OK. Let's get one more call in, before we have to say goodbye. And we're speaking with Rebecca, who is calling us from Durham, North Carolina. Hello, Rebecca.

REBECCA: Oh, yes. I am the spouse of a high-ranking military person. And I have to tell you, the wives in the military community are disgusted by this story. I mean, he is going to go down not remembered for the things that he did, but for his moral character - which is horrible. I mean, look at Bill Clinton; look at all these other people - I mean, Gen. Petraeus just disappointed so many. You cannot look up to someone like that - with such corrupt moral character.

LYDEN: Is that because his test of leadership was what leaders do when no one is looking - do you think, Rebecca?

REBECCA: Exactly. What - and your moral character. I mean, if he can do this in secrecy, can you imagine the other things that he may have done? I mean, he's no one to be modeled; no one to be looked up to. He should be ashamed, and he did the right thing by resigning.

LYDEN: Well, thank you for another point of view. And Fred, we're going to have to say goodbye to you. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAPLAN: OK. Thank you.

LYDEN: Fred Kaplan is the author of the "War Stories" column at Slate and also the forthcoming book, "The Insurgence." And you can find a link to Fred's column on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from New York.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about diplomatic security - what we're learning since the Benghazi attack, and how the U.S. government protects State Department employees. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Our guest misstated the name of the center commanded by Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster. It is the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.
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