David Petraeus, a two-star general during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace.
The messy departure of CIA Director David Petraeus over an extramarital affair removes the last high-ranking neoconservative holdover from George W. Bush's administration and gives the reelected President Barack Obama more maneuvering room to negotiate a settlement over Iran's nuclear program.
Petraeus's resignation, along with a public acknowledgement of an affair, reportedly with an admiring female biographer, raised eyebrows in Washington for reasons beyond the sudden and humiliating fall of the high-flying former four-star general. Normally, in such situations, a cover story is used to spare someone of Petraeus's stature embarrassment.
One person familiar with the Obama administration's thinking said President Obama was never close to Petraeus, who was viewed as a favorite of the neoconservatives and someone who had undercut a possible solution to Iran's nuclear program in 2011 by pushing a bizarre claim that Iranian intelligence was behind an assassination plot aimed at the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Especially in the days after a president's reelection, it would not be uncommon for a senior official to announce new career plans or a desire to spend more time with the family. Instead, Petraeus's resignation was accompanied by an admission of the affair. Press reports identified the woman as Paula Broadwell, who co-authored a biography of Petraeus -- All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.
As that case initially evolved, the White House and Justice Department were skeptical that the plot traced back to the Iranian government, but Petraeus pushed the alleged connection which was then made public in a high-profile indictment. The charges further strained relations with Iran, making a possible military confrontation more likely.
At the time, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a favored recipient of official CIA leaks, reported that "one big reason [top U.S. officials became convinced the plot was real] is that CIA and other intelligence agencies gathered information corroborating the informant's juicy allegations and showing that the plot had support from the top leadership of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the covert action arm of the Iranian government."
Ignatius added that, "it was this intelligence collected in Iran" that swung the balance. But Ignatius offered no examples of what that intelligence was. Nor did Ignatius show any skepticism regarding Petraeus's well-known hostility toward Iran and how that might have influenced the CIA's judgment.
As it turned out, the case was based primarily on statements from an Iranian-American car dealer Mansour Arbabsiar, who clumsily tried to hire drug dealers to murder Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, though Arbabsiar was actually talking to a Drug Enforcement Agency informant. Arbabsiar pled guilty last month as his lawyers argued that their client suffers from a bipolar disorder. In other words, Petraeus and his CIA escalated an international crisis largely on the word of a person diagnosed by doctors of his own defense team as having a severe psychiatric disorder.
Despite the implausibility of the assassination story and the unreliability of the key source, the Washington press corps quickly accepted the Iranian assassination plot as real. That assessment reflected the continued influence of neoconservatives in Official Washington and Petraeus's out-sized reputation among journalists.
The neocons, who directed much of President George W. Bush's disastrous foreign policy and filled the ranks of Mitt Romney's national security team, have favored a heightened confrontation with Iran in line with the hardline position of Israel's Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the post-election period, it is a top neocon goal to derail Obama's efforts to work out a peaceful settlement of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. The neocons favor "regime change."
Petraeus's ideological alignment with the neocons threatened to undercut the administration's unity behind Obama's peace initiative. Thus, according to the person familiar with the administration's thinking, some key figures close to the President wanted Petraeus out and there was no sadness that his personal indiscretions contributed to his departure.
Regarding the facts behind Petraeus's sudden resignation, the New York Times reported that the FBI had begun an investigation into a "potential criminal matter" several months ago that was not focused on Petraeus. It was in the course of an their inquiry into whether a computer used by Petraeus had been compromised that agents discovered evidence of the relationship as well as other security concerns. About two weeks ago, FBI agents met with Petraeus to discuss the investigation, the Times reported.
According to the Times, one congressional official who was briefed on the matter said Petraeus had been encouraged "to get out in front of the issue" and resign, and that he agreed.
Though held in high esteem by Official Washington for his role in advocating "surges" of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2009, Petraeus actually has a less than sterling record of military success. He was in charge of a trouble-plagued effort to train a new Iraqi army after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and his supposedly successful "surge" in Iraq was more a public relations success than a change in the strategic trajectory toward ultimate U.S. failure there.
The Unsuccessful Surge