The strategic impact of the Petraeus scandal: Q & A


Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen on April 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Petraeus resigned his post as CIA Director after news of an extramarital affair emerged, and Allen was also caught up in a related scandal.


Chip Somodevilla

The scandal that ended Gen. David Petraeus's career as CIA director and has now involved the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, continues to get more convoluted. Aside from the prurient fascination in a scandal involving two high-ranking officials' love lives, could the incident have strategic consequences for the United States?

GlobalPost talked to Nick Mills, a journalism professor at Boston University's College of Communication and author of "Karzai: The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Afghanistan."

What, if any, is the strategic fallout for the US?

I can’t see that it will have very much at all. I think Obama said today that he was sticking by Gen. Allen. He’s a general, there are other generals. It’s really a surprising twist to find this triangle between Petraeus, Allen and the woman in Florida, and Petraeus’s girlfriend. It’s juicy gossip, it’s a wonderful tabloid story, but I don’t see it having far reaching strategic ramifications. It’s really not a shock to find out men fool around, even high-ranking generals, even presidents.

I’m reminded of the changing times. Steven Kinzer wrote a piece in The New York Times recently about [former CIA Director Allen] Dulles who used to have hundreds of affairs, and nobody wrote about them. It wasn’t considered pertinent. Certainly, the press in those days wouldn’t dream of writing about officials’ love lives. Times have changed, but the people haven’t. It’s an awkward situation for the Obama administration to have the CIA Director and the commander in Afghanistan both involved in some kind of love triangle, but as far as national security is concerned I don’t think there are any ramifications.

How will this impact the military command structure?

Gen. Allen, in his career, this is probably as far as he’s going to go. Petraeus will probably go back to civilian life. He may now get a job as a defense contractor. The general is probably not going to get another command any time soon, so he might as well hang up his spurs as well. I don’t think in the long run it will topple the military.

Will this impact the deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014?

I can’t imagine that it will. Military men come and go, in any theater of operations. I can’t imagine it’s going to have effect on the timeframe, or how it’s done.

The FBI has already drawn criticism from Congress over its handling of the Petraeus affair. How is this scandal likely to effect the FBI and CIA?

I feel kind of feel bad for the CIA, because Petraeus was apparently doing a pretty good job there and won some respect. For this to happen shortly after he was appointed — and it hasn’t been long — I think the CIA needs continuity at the top. It’s a setback for the CIA more than the military. They need to find another very competent director to step in. I think the CIA was certainly hurt more than the military.

The FBI is going to have to answer for its delay in notifying Congressional leaders about this investigation, but all I’ve read is that they didn’t say anything because it has no effect on national security and the only reason it came out now was because someone from the FBI went directly to a congressman.

So far, there has been no evidence of a national security breach in the Petraeus scandal. Could something like this have an impact on security abroad, and America's diplomatic standing in the world?

I don’t know that our diplomatic standing is all that high at the moment. This is right after the election, when there’s a good mood around the world about President Obama’s re-election, and now here come two very high-ranking people basically in the Obama administration, although the CIA Director is not considered part of the administration, who have been caught up in this sex scandal. It won’t play very well, certainly in the Muslim countries. It may cost some diplomatic points in that part of the world, in Afghanistan and certainly in Pakistan.

In the long run, I don’t think it’s going to make any serious alterations to American policy. Some European countries think we’re rather prudish about the whole thing. I can’t imagine it having a serious impact; it just causes a flutter. It’s just titillating to have big men caught up in sexual entanglements.

Sometime in the last few decades we’ve become extremely puritanical about these things. In history, with JFK, a lot of details have come out about his sex life recently. And there were several other historical figures who had affairs. Now we make a big deal about it. It was never a big deal before. The only time it was a big deal was when the affair led to a breach of national security, like sleeping with a Russian spy. We’ve become very puritanical for some reason, and hypocritical.