The Real Housewives of CENTCOM
All of three days ago I offered my analysis of the emerging Petraeus debacle. Over the last seventy-two hours so many unpleasant details have popped up which are shocking to even a moderate cynic like myself that I don’t want to proffer a guess where the next few days will take us with this drama. First it was a legit news story, then it became a Lifetime episode, suddenly a reality show on Bravo, now it’s looking like a Coen brothers’ script. The only guess I will venture is: nowhere good.
It has emerged not only that Paula Broadwell, Dave Petraeus’s main gal not his wife, is pretty nuts, between online threats to perceived rivals and generally stalkerish and inappropriate behavior, but that she’s actually the kinda boring one.
Fortunately we now have Jill Kelley, the other doctor’s wife in this tawdry story, who is vastly more entertaining. Paula – she’s wound a bit tight, too West Pointish with the running obsession. Jill, however, is something else with her multiple aliases (Jill Kelley AKA Gilberte J. Kelley AKA Gigi Kelley AKA Jill Khawam AKA Gigi Khawam … and those are just the ones we know so far), the shady financial shenanigans (ok, it’s not officially fraud since no convictions yet despite obvious “financial issues”), the overt status whoring (since when do Combatant Commands have “social directors”? do they work for the J3?), the absurd posturing (normal women do not call their husband “Dr. Kelley”), and I won’t even mention her, ahem, fashion sense. The gal’s a Levantine macher from central casting.
Basically Jill Kelley is a more effective Tareq Salahi, minus the winery. Despite obvious huge issues here which ought to have scared off any normal person, especially anyone in a position of responsibility with a public image to protect, she and General John Allen, our commander in Afghanistan, traded tens of thousands of emails now considered “inappropriate.” I could care less if those two were doing naked pushups together, but I do wonder where Gen. Allen found all that time, since losing a war as badly as NATO is in Afghanistan is nothing if not a full-time position.
Since I have no trouble believing – as Paula obviously did – that Jill is a seductress who had her eyes set on guys with stars, including very possibly her very own general/boyfriend, questions will be asked what was up between Jill and Dave too. Can’t wait to find out. She had enough pull with both Allen and Petraeus to get them to go to bat for her “psychologically unstable” twin sister - because this story couldn’t be perfect without a crazy doppelganger for at least one of the mistresses – in her incredibly nasty custody battle.
With exquisite timing, the Army today announced, after an absurdly long delay, that it is “punishing” General William “Kip” Ward for his ridiculous bling-bling lifestyle as AFRICOM commander by having him retire as a three-star: a bit of a financial loss, but hardly the GULAG. So now we’re up to three – yes, three that we know of so far – four-star generals who all displayed, over a pattern of years, worse judgement than most parents would expect of teenagers.
Or than the military consistently expects of its junior personnel. L’affaire Dave et al isn’t about sex – though sex, broadly defined, is what sells here – rather judgement. These scandals are so bad that the military, the Army especially, can’t do its usual trick of punishing the most junior soldiers and letting senior officers, plus every general involved, get away scot free (see: Abu Ghraib). This is so public that Petraeus and Allen will have to suffer something beyond humiliation – though, as with Kip Ward, DoD will try and drag their feet as long as possible.
There is a serious angle to all this which Americans need to think about. For the last decade especially, we have lionized our military beyond anything resembling what it actually is. Americans in uniform are presented to us as something like martyrs, and some are possibly even saints living among us; that everyone who’s ever actually served in uniform knows this is ridiculous doesn’t matter, since the vast majority of Americans know nothing about the military except from a very safe distance. Americans love to put out yellow ribbons and offer discounts to military members, but they’re not big on actually joining up themselves. Not to mention that Americans’ long-distance love affair with its armed forces probably says more about the dysfunction of pretty much all our nation’s other institutions than it does about the Pentagon, which only looks efficient and honorable when compared to, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles.
No one in recent years benefitted more from this lionization than David Petraeus, who has lived a very charmed life as a conquering hero (without actually conquering anything) in a country which treats its military, especially its generals, very lavishly, but that bubble has burst, lost in a haze of tawdry love gone very wrong, and that cult – for a cult it surely was, as even formerly hagiographic journalists are conceding – is over. The saint is revealed to be a sinner, and we can assume that the gods, and the public, will not be forgiving.
Dave can fight this, but that would be inadvisable on many grounds. As he was the symbol for goodness, unjustly, he will now become the stand-in for badness, perhaps unjustly. He ought to think about his options, the most attractive of which should be just going away. No big speaker deals, no Beltway Bandit cash-ins, no FoxNews cameos … simply retreat from the limelight while you still can and you still have a tiny bit of personal dignity left.
This will be tough for Dave, who has been every bit as enamored of the limelight and paparazzi as his girlfriends were, but there’s an honorable precedent for this. Back in 1963 the British government was shaken by a not altogether dissimilar sex-and-war scandal that took down John Profumo, the defense minister and, everyone had assumed, the future prime minister. Profumo had it all – looks, money, fame, power, plus an outstanding war record (he was a bona fide war hero, having started World War Two as a lieutenant and ending it as a brigadier, winning a raft of decorations along the way; unlike Petraeus, who first saw “combat” as a two-star general in 2003), and like many good looking and powerful men, he had zipper problems. One of his paramours was Christine Keeler, a rent-girl whose other boyfriends included the top Soviet naval attache in London (i.e. a GRU spy). The resulting scandal destroyed Profumo’s career and caused the collapse of the Conservative government.
What did John Profumo do? Did he sign a book deal for a tell-all memoir? Did he go on a pseudo-apology tour on TV talk shows? Did he perhaps engage top lawyers, PR flacks, and image consultants to set it right? No, he decided to – I know this word may be unfamiliar to our younger readers – atone for what he had done.
Knowing he had humiliated his family and his country, John Profumo devoted the rest of his life to charity among the poor of London. He labored intensely at Toynbee Hall – his work for years included cleaning the toilets – and later raised millions for the needy. Eventually he was allowed back into polite society, being knighted later in life for his good works, yet he never wanted the limelight, devoting all his efforts to his charity work and his redemption. When he died in 2006, at the age of 91, John Profumo was remembered not so much for the scandal but more for all the good works he had done after his life and career fell apart in shame.
Redemption is pretty passe these days but it’s never really out of style. Dave Petraeus, who likes to read, might want to read up on John Profumo if he wants to do the right thing.
[N.B. The comments here are mine alone and certainly not those or the Naval War College of the Department of Defense.]