WASHINGTON — The Petraeus affair is an exceptionally difficult test case in determining the proper relationship between personal ethics and public trust. When should you forgive an indispensable leader a fatal flaw?
Retired Gen. David Petraeus has made a career of indispensability. He defined and implemented the counterinsurgency doctrines that brought about a decent outcome in Iraq. He left his imprint on a generation of officers who have emulated his strategic flexibility and intellectual rigor.
There is a reason Petraeus generally received good press, even from those skeptical of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. During briefings and discussions, he is supremely informed and often breathtakingly candid. He possesses a comprehensive knowledge of leaders and events in the Middle East and Central Asia. His career had not only been successful; it demonstrated that America is capable of complex international responsibilities. Petraeus is a generator of national confidence.
So why, exactly, should marital infidelity be disqualifying? This is not an easy or simple determination in any field of public leadership and responsibility. With human beings, it is necessary to leave room for complication. A person who cheats on his or her spouse can show courage on the battlefield or loyalty to their country. Faithlessness in one area does not extend to every area. Most people have hidden flaws and failures of various kinds, which may or may not have broader relevance to their work.
So we are forced to make professional judgments. It matters little if our surgeon is prideful or our airline pilot is a miser. It matters greatly if either abuses alcohol.
We also make practical distinctions on sexual issues such as adultery. All infidelity involves personal betrayal. Innocent people — spouses and children — suffer unfairly. But some adultery also involves exploitation, compulsiveness and the abuse of power — failures we rightly judge more harshly.
Expectations of personal behavior in the national security professions have generally been higher than other fields, particularly for officers and leaders. In the military, sexual intrigue can undermine morale and discipline. Adultery can land you in prison for up to a year. In the intelligence world, sex has long been used as bait and blackmail, though I'd imagine that plain old infidelity at the CIA is not unknown or uniformly punished.