David Petraeus: A Good General Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

When we lost our CIA director, we lost four decades of expertise at a time when we need that most. Diane Dimond on the high cost of a scandal.

11.18.12 12:59 PM ET

It’s not just David Petraeus and his former mistress Paula Broadwell who are the big losers in this unfolding scandal—America has lost too.

This country has invested heavily in developing Petraeus into the successful and well-decorated military leader he became. And a decades-long ascension to the elite branches of government doesn’t come cheap. Look at Petraeus’s schooling alone: four years at West Point, where he graduated in 1974 in the top 5 percent of his class; Ranger School; the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College; and Princeton University, where he earned both a master’s and a Ph.D. in international relations.

“Adjusted for inflation, it’s more than a million dollars just on his education,” retired Maj. Mike Lyons tells The Daily Beast. Lyons is a senior fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a Washington-based national-security leadership institute, and a West Point graduate. He says the government pays the freight for a cadet’s continuing education, no matter how long it lasts. “And, he’d be getting his military pay at the same time he went to school,” Lyons added. During Petraeus’s years at Princeton in the mid-’80s, for example, Lyons estimates his take-home military pay would have been between $50,000 and $60,000 per year. “Remember too, a military person also gets to pay less at the commissary (for groceries and other necessities), and they get free medical and housing or a housing allowance.”

Of course, there’s a reason we invest in brilliant young men like David Petraeus. The country has gotten a considerable return on a considerable investment. Among his long list of accomplishments, Petraeus commanded a division that helped liberate Iraq. He steered the course for America’s exit from Afghanistan. And drawing from his study of the Vietnam War, he developed the “Petraeus doctrine,” a deft counterinsurgency strategy that combines troop surges, on-the-ground public relations with locals, media management, and political savvy. While his tactics have been criticized, it’s also been seen as effective—and it’s sure to be taught at military academies if it isn’t already.

Then, after 37 years of service to the U.S. military, Petraeus resigned in August 2011 to take on another public-service job: head of the CIA. At his retirement ceremony, Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Petraeus one of the nation’s great battle captains and compared him with Ulysses S. Grant, John Pershing, George Marshall, and Dwight Eisenhower. Some politicos firmly believe President Obama appointed the popular general to the CIA’s top spot as a way to keep him off the Eisenhower trajectory—the one that leads to the White House.

But it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that the U.S. has invested multiple millions of dollars over the course of nearly four decades for the education, transportation, and development of David Petraeus.

It paid off for a while. In fact, in a sort of triple payback, the country also got his wife, Holly, who has dedicated much of her life to advance causes important to soldiers and their families, and their son Stephen, who served in Afghanistan with the Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Now, however, the Petraeus expertise and experience is lost to the country as he falls to the most common and mundane of human frailties—an extramarital affair. Those close to the former general say the West Point code that a cadet “will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do” is still a guiding force in his life.

Much has already been written about the recklessness inherent in any director of the CIA entering into a clandestine relationship. (In an off-camera interview with HLN, Petraeus insisted he never passed any classified information to Paula Broadwell and that his resignation had nothing to do with the timing of his scheduled testimony to Congress on the Benghazi tragedy.)  However, looking at it from purely an economic standpoint, ostracizing Petraeus doesn’t make much sense. America still faces unknown threats from dedicated terrorist groups. Relations in the Middle East—especially between Israel and the Palestinians—are at a flashpoint. Trouble continues to brew in North Korea and elsewhere. This is a time when the country needs its best, most experienced minds standing ready and at attention.

Retired Col. Ken Allard, former dean of the National War College, has considered Petraeus a friend for 30 years. He bristles at the way his colleague has been so casually shunted aside. As he wrote in a recent email, “If you think you know what combat really is, then you don't. And if you think you understand the story of David Petraeus, then you definitely don't. And, if you think we should now treat him as anything less than a true American hero then please make that argument while standing well beyond my reach, OK?”

Major Lyons, meanwhile, points out that Petraeus has endured many hardships during his service to the country including moving his family more than 20 times in 30 years. “In some ways he was just adjusting to being back (in the States) with his wife,” Lyons said in reference to the CIA post Petraeus held for just 14 months. Five of the last six years Petraeus had been deployed overseas, leaving his family behind.

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“What he did might not have been smart,” Lyons concedes. “But he’s too ambitious and too smart not to come back and make a public contribution. He’s on the beach now, but the people in his inner circle are confident he’ll be back.”

Official Washington might be done with David Petraeus, but this is a man who has survived being shot in the chest during a training mishap, a broken pelvis from an ill-fated parachute jump, and prostate cancer. He has developed into a highly valuable commodity, and now it seems that only the corporate world will benefit from his expertise. Corporations seeking to do business with foreign governments will be lining up with open wallets to tap into Petraeus’s considerable knowledge.                   

It’d be a shame not to.