Was David Petraeus' military brilliance overrated?

The media once gushed with hagiographic tributes to the general. But in light of tawdry revelations about his personal life, many former fans are reconsidering

David Petraeus
(Image credit: AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

David Petraeus has long been praised as one of the greatest military leaders of our time, "on a par in popularity with Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf and arguably more skilled than both of them," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. The four-star general is credited with pulling Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war, turning the tide in Afghanistan with President Obama's surge of 30,000 troops in 2009, and developing the counter-insurgency strategies that have become a new U.S. standard of warfare. But was it all a big ruse? After Petraeus' CIA career abruptly ended last week when he admitted to an extramarital affair — and as more strange details continue to emerge about the scandal — the media is beginning to question whether Petraeus' military brilliance is really just a myth. Was he overrated?

Obviously, there is a chasm between man and myth: The reason that Petraeus — whose name was floated as a possible candidate for president — was given such high praise even among non-military members of government, says Mataconis, is that he, "or at least his staff, was running a very sophisticated public relations campaign that helped to perpetuate the media myth." In essence, they "created an environment where the reporters covering him came to believe the myth rather than question it." This isn't to say that Petraeus was a bad general. "The evidence to the contrary on that point is far too voluminous to ignore." But it should've been clear that the man didn't measure up to the myth. "They never do, after all."

"Reconsidering the Petraeus hagiography"

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And he was hardly morally superior to us: Let's be frank, says No More Mister Nice Blog: "Ultimately what's going on is just sex." This is a case of lustful people behaving less than admirably. We've seen it before with powerful men. (I'm looking at you, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and John Edwards.) In Petraeus' case, we're dealing with someone who we were led to believe was "morally better than we are. We're naive if we believe that." Clearly, Petraeus was no hero.

"Bitch set America up!"

Hold on. His professional record speaks for itself: Obviously, Petraeus "showed bad judgment" in his personal life, says Trudy Rubin at The Philadelphia Inquirer. But his affair doesn't change what he did for our country, or how qualified he was to run the CIA. The counterinsurgency strategy he promoted in Iraq "prevented an even more grisly civil war and ended the heaviest fighting." At a time when "the CIA is crucial in anti-terrorism operations," and Petraeus is so knowledgeable on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa, and the Middle East, "should the country lose his skills?" I yearn for the days when "national leaders were judged on performance."

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"

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