The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gen. David Petraeus: From hero to zero

Former CIA director David H. Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine by a N.C. court after pleading guilty to mishandling classified information. (Video: Reuters)
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A little more than eight years ago, America’s war in Iraq was in shambles. Thousands of U.S. troops and an untold number of Iraqis were dead. Reports of Saddam Hussein’s “tens of thousands of teaspoons” of anthrax proved unfounded. And the war intended to liberate a nation from a dictator was looking more and more like a huge debacle.

But the nation was holding on for a hero: Gen. David H. Petraeus, a.k.a. “King David.” Praise from his first year as commander of U.S. troops in Iraq is as about as high as high gets.

“This guy is a major intellect with vision and discipline and drive — and he can do more one-armed push-ups than anyone I know,” said Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped write a much-lauded counterinsurgency manual with Petraeus.

“Dave Petraeus in many ways is viewed as the archetype of what this new generation of senior leader is all about,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College, “a guy . . . who understands information operations, who can be effective on Capitol Hill, who can communicate with Iraqis, who understands the value of original thought, who has the ability through the power of his intellect to lead people to change.”

There was talk that, one day, King David would be president.

“Petraeus’ leadership qualities, combined with his role as the Bush administration’s last hope for saving face on Iraq, has set off speculation that the general could run for office some day — possibly the presidency, in 2012,” Mother Jones wrote. “‘This man is a walking mass of ambition,’ says a former senior intelligence official. ‘I’m sure he’s thinking about Dwight Eisenhower every day.'”

Now, it’s clear that Petraeus is not like Ike. The disgraced 62-year-old retired general will be fined $100,000 and put on probation for three years after pleading guilty to mishandling classified material.

[Petraeus pleads guilty to mishandling classified material, will face probation]

“Today marks the end of a two-and-a-half-year ordeal that resulted from mistakes that I made,” Petraeus said after he was sentenced, as the Charlotte Observer reported. “I now look forward to moving on with the next phase of my life and continuing to serve our great nation as a private citizen.”

Though Petraeus is far from finished — he works with private equity firm KKR and has even been known to advise the White House — it’s hard to think of a presidential contender who has fallen so far, so fast. Sure, John Edwards’s ambitions for the White House were undone by a love child, but Edwards was a trial attorney, not the man responsible for the lives of tens of thousands of troops.

“You know you should be in prison. They should have put you in jail,” Army veteran Sam Grier said as the former Army commander walked away from a courthouse in Charlotte. The reason for Grier’s taunt? “Because he compromised national security for a piece of a–,” the veteran told the Observer.

The heckler’s history wasn’t far from the truth: Petraeus shared classified material with his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell. The indiscretion was bad enough, but the means by which it was carried out was pure amateur hour. In a technique “known to teenagers and terrorists alike,” as the Associated Press put it, Petraeus and Broadwell left drafts of intimate messages for one other in a Gmail draft folder.

“It’s the sort of measure you take if you fear there’s a risk that someone will look in on you,” The Washington Post wrote in 2012. “And it’s been around for quite some time, which may be why the FBI investigators were not fooled by it.”

This was the guy the nation made director of the CIA? What had gone wrong? Was he mad for love? Overconfident? Or just a fool?

“Since Petraeus’s resignation, many have strained to understand how such a celebrated general could have behaved so badly,” The Post wrote. “Some have speculated that an exhausting decade of war impaired his judgment. Others wondered if Petraeus was never the Boy Scout he appeared to be.”

Former defense secretary Robert Gates offered another explanation.

“There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment,” he said.