In recent weeks no fewer than three high ranking officials, notable worldwide, have been forced to resign due to extramarital affairs. In America this included General David Petraeus who stepped down as Director of the CIA when it was revealed he had had an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Surely there is nothing laudable in marital infidelity, but when it comes to the business of national security, what matters above all else is the ability to get the job done. Based on that criterion, was getting rid of Petraeus the right thing to do?
General Petraeus has been praised constantly as one of the best military leaders of our time. There were high hopes that his tenure would result in greater unity, efficiency, and effectiveness in the chaotic and often dysfunctional world of the CIA. Whether or not that proved to be the case or would have proved to be the case is a subject for debate, but what seems clear is that Petraeus’s departure does not seem to have been due to particularly poor leadership.
Why then, should he have been led to resign over a fundamentally private matter? Many might argue that the decision to engage in an extramarital affair displays tendencies towards poor judgment. Others may suggest that such activities belie a lack of the sort of moral grounding they perceive as necessary to govern a country. Still others would be inclined to wonder why state secrets should be given to anyone who can’t even keep a petty affair secret.
None of these arguments hold water; one need only to look at relatively recent history to see affirm that individuals with deeply tumultuous, even chaotic private lives can be extraordinary leaders. The fact of the matter is that unless an affair directly undermines an individual’s ability to lead, it is not sufficient reason to force him out of office. This is a lesson well known to other populations which Americans would do well to learn, too. It could one day be crucial to our national security.
Those who say that Petraeus clearly shows tendencies towards poor judgment based on his affair find themselves contradicted by nearly every great leader in history. John F. Kennedy was no loyal husband, but successfully guided the nation through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not only was this one of the most delicate international situations in history, it was also the most dangerous. Despite his status as a repeat philanderer, he arguably saved modern civilization from potential disaster.
Franklin Roosevelt was perhaps the only leader who could have successfully engineered America’s roles in World War II, and he certainly fooled around on poor Eleanor. J. Edgar Hoover, the man who pioneered the FBI, probably engaged in marital infidelity. Was Bill Clinton unsuited to manage major issues of national security like the stabilization of Russia and the Mexican Peso Crisis because he had a particular way of relaxing in the Oval Office? And nearly all of the Founding Fathers, our most celebrated presidents, committed multiple acts of infidelity.
This leads into the role of moral qualifications to lead elements of the nation’s security apparatus. The Declaration of Independence, one of the central moral documents upon which America’s military and diplomatic conduct in the world is founded, was written by a man who fathered an entire family with one of his slaves. Surely that doesn’t change the value of the Declaration of Independence.
And what of the idea that if Petraeus wasn’t able to keep his own petty affair a secret, then he surely can’t be trusted with the security of the nation? Rubbish. The idea has been bandied about that perhaps the secret may have been leaked for political reasons from inside the CIA. It’s always dangerous for leadership anywhere in government to ruffle the feathers of the CIA entrenched bureaucracy. If an internal leak proves to be the case, it probably just means Petraeus was doing something right.
The only thing that made this leader in the fight to secure America from outside threats unable to perform his duties was not his extramarital affair. It was the guaranteed reaction from the public once they found out. Petraeus knew the news would break and that he would lose his authority to lead with the public, regardless of whether or not he was still capable. Though the private failing is certainly on the part of the Petraeus, the public failing isn’t. It’s on the part of an over-moralizing American electorate.
In France, Presidents are almost expected to philander. The French simply don’t care if he does so long as it doesn’t affect the job he does. Many a sociologist will suggest that this comes from centuries of existential threat from Spain, the United Kingdom, and then Germany. The moral foibles of a leader in his (or her) private life simply didn’t matter in the face of such danger. America must learn this lesson; sacrificing a great leader to the cause of moral outrage in a 24-hour media cycle is insane.
This country has an unusually powerful fixation on marital infidelity. As a country, there is a tendency to expect leaders not only to be good at their jobs, but also to stand as examples of moral rectitude. The problem is that those two expectations often overlap. What makes a great politician very rarely makes a good man; great leaders need to be confident to the point of arrogance and willing to take risks.
By punishing their leaders for being human, America cuts off its brain to spite its security. There is a place for morality on the world stage; America should conduct itself with the greatest moral clarity possible. However, in an increasingly competitive and insecure international system, removing highly skilled national security leaders from their post for petty reasons attached to private iniquities is a luxury which no country, not even the United States, can afford.