Paul Greenberg: How the mighty have fallen

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: November 14, 2012
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“ ... count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.”

— Sophocles, “Oedipus Rex”

He was America's most honored general, and for good reason. From West Point to Princeton, the classroom to the battlefield, theory to practice, David Petraeus had studied and then acted on what he'd learned. He rewrote the book on counter-insurgency warfare, or at least oversaw its compilation and culmination.

In the Army's and the country's hour of desperation in Iraq, when others were ready to accept failure there and call it statesmanship, when master strategist Joe Biden was advocating that we just leave and let that bloody mess of a country vivisect itself into three ethnic parts, this four-star general had a different idea: try something new.

It was called the Surge, an infusion not only of a new troops but a new attitude — working with Iraqis on the ground, building alliances, recruiting new forces who would fight for a better, more stable and democratic future for their reunited country.

Naturally, the general was hooted down by those who knew only that they knew better. Their calculation: Defeatism is always the best course when defeat becomes undeniable.

But a president named George W. Bush had faith in this general and his new approach, and what the armed forces of the United States could do, even adopt new ideas. And the Surge worked — dramatically. The tide was turned. Petraeus, his command, and Iraqis and Americans together snatched victory — or at least success — from the jaws of a defeat that had looked inevitable.

There is no misfortune that cannot lead to change for the better. In this case, it led to Petraeus' being recognized as both the visionary and practical-minded leader he was. The same strategy would later be approved by its former critic-in-chief, Barack Obama, in Afghanistan.

No, it hasn't proven a complete success there, being denied the complete support that Gen. Petraeus had requested. But the man's reputation as both seer and leader had been established on both fronts, and he was a natural pick to head the country's Central Intelligence Agency, where he lasted until his abrupt resignation last week.

Why did he have to go? His shamefaced announcement to the stunned agency he headed told the story: “After being married for 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.” An organization in charge of the country's secrets and its secret exploits.

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