Since last Friday, l'affaire Petraeus has gone from being a personal tragedy—great leader brought down by interior flaw—to an institutional one. None of the institutions involved looks likely to emerge untarnished. It's clear that senior military and intelligence leaders tolerate a great deal of hypocrisy and unequal power relations among themselves, while punishing it among subordinates; that the FBI at best had a problem with inappropriate behavior by "Agent Shirtless" and at worst abused its surveillance powers considerably; that Congress can't bear to be left aside, having spilled as much ink demanding access to the Petraeus investigation as to, well, drone policy; that the media will eagerly fan flames of sensation while burying substance; and that we, the consuming public, will eagerly lap it up.
It now appears that Petraeus himself thought he would be able to stay on—until he realized the story would go public. But in the end, he is an organization man through and through, and the organizations to which he gave his life have rules. Rules about adultery. Rules about the protection of classified information. Rules about keeping secrets—and about keeping secrets from the organization.
We civilians may find those rules repugnant, ridiculous. At the same time, we can surely understand that a leader cannot demand that others follow rules to which he (or she) is unwilling to submit. Petraeus is, as has been noted, quite a student of leadership. One of his former colleagues from Iraq said to me that Petraeus was "particularly at ease with doing the right thing early." He understood that his institutional leadership was fatally compromised, by his own actions, and drew the consequences. That was the right thing to do—and it leaves the door open for future exercise of his intellectual leadership, as well.
About Heather Hurlburt Executive Director of the National Security Network
Lawrence J. Korb Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress