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Scandals Remind Us Generals Are Not Infallible


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. We've steadily been learning more about the people at the center of a military scandal. Retired general - and CIA director - David Petraeus resigned because of an affair.

INSKEEP: The affair was discovered when his mistress confronted another woman.

WERTHEIMER: That woman, Jill Kelley, was a socialite linked to the U.S. military in Tampa. She also proved to have had many communications with General John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan; who has denied having an affair, but is being investigated by the Pentagon.

INSKEEP: All of this, and more, prompts NPR's Tom Gjelten to report on the relations between generals and civilians.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Officers in Afghanistan are talking about a commander's curse. Commanding generals David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal both ran into trouble with their civilian superiors. David Petraeus did go on to lead the CIA, but his tenure there lasted just 14 months. And now Petraeus' successor, John Allen, is facing a possible early end to his military career.

As with Petraeus, it's General Allen's connection to a woman, that is under scrutiny. White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked yesterday whether the president is at all worried about an inappropriate culture at the highest levels of the U.S. military.


JAY CARNEY: I really would ask you to not extrapolate broadly. The president has great confidence in the military, great confidence in his commanders; and will continue to have that confidence.

GJELTEN: In the past, U.S. presidents have survived sex scandals. So why the fuss over allegedly inappropriate behavior by generals Petraeus and Allen? Richard Kohn is an expert on civilian-military relations, at the University of North Carolina. He thinks we put military leaders on a pedestal.

RICHARD KOHN: They have to have higher standards because of their need to trust each other, and to lead people in very dangerous circumstances. But it's gotten to the point, I think, of being unreasonable expectations on a lot of these people.

GJELTEN: Kohn says this tendency goes back at least 20 years. David Petraeus was hardly the first general to be seen in heroic terms. There's General Norman Schwarzkopf, in the first Gulf War. General Colin Powell's fans wanted him to run for president. But there's nothing like a sex scandal to remind us that four-star generals are human. Eliot Cohen, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote a famous book on the power relations between presidents and generals. He says the David Petraeus and John Allen stories drive home the point, don't demand too much from your generals.

ELIOT COHEN: They may accomplish tremendous things, but nobody should pretend that they are a different order of human being. They are absolutely not. We can still admire them and be grateful for the things that they've accomplished, but also have some perspective on them as being fallible. In the same way one shouldn't fall in love with politicians, one shouldn't fall in love with generals, either.

GJELTEN: That's advice even for presidents, or presidential candidates. When asked what they would do in Afghanistan or Iraq, both President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, at one time or another, said that they'd listen to what their generals recommended.

In the coming months, the speed of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be a pressing issue for the Obama administration. Eliot Cohen - who advised Governor Romney on national security issues - says presidents, in the end, have to make up their own mind.

COHEN: It's very important to remember, military advice is just that - it's advice. No politician should ever feel compelled to accept it. So by all means, listen to the generals. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you do what they advise you to do.

GJELTEN: It can be awkward for a president to disregard the counsel of military commanders. But on occasion, it can be necessary. Eliot Cohen has said that before, and he says it again now. If the scandals now surrounding David Petraeus, and John Allen, remind Americans that generals are not infallible, he says, that could be a silver lining to what is generally, a sad story.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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