The tragedy of David Petraeus

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past five hours, you've probably heard by now that David Petraeus -- perhaps the most universally admired person in American public life -- suddenly resigned as director of the CIA for, as he told agency staffers in a message Friday, "engaging in an extramarital affair."

Slate's Fred Kaplan reports that his paramour was none other than Paula Broadwell, the co-author of a highly flattering biography of the former general, All In: The Education of David Petraeus. (FP tried to contact Broadwell via several channels Friday, but she did not respond.)

According to the AP, the affair came to light during an investigation by the FBI, presumably related to its counterintelligence function. (Other accounts are offering more salacious details, but I can't vouch for the quality of the reporting.)

As recently as Monday, Broadwell published an article titled "General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living"on the DailyBeast's website. Rule No. 1: "Lead by example from the front of the formation." Rule No. 5: "We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear­ view mirrors—drive on and avoid making them again."

What's clear is that Broadwell, a veteran whose book began as a dissertation project, was starstruck by her subject.

In January, when her book, co-authored with Washington Post editor Vernon Loeb, came out,  Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings ripped it as "such blatant, unabashed propaganda, it’s as if the general has given up pretending there’s a difference between the press and his own public relations team." When Broadwell appeared on the Daily Show to promote the book, she joked, "He can turn water into bottled water" and noted "he is a very high-energy person." They spent a lot of time together on runs, a favorite Petraeus activity. She said Petraeus had "no dirty secrets."

In her book, Broadwell describes how she first met Petraeus in 2006, when he was still a lieutenant general, at a dinner arranged by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I introduced myself," she writes, "and told him about my research interests; he gave me his card and offered to put me in touch with other researchers and service members working on the same issues. ... I took full advantage of his open-door policy to seek insight and share perspectives."

Broadwell was also an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy, via Tom Ricks's blog. In one post, she lauded Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy; in another, she wrote, "Gen. David H. Petraeus's counterinsurgency guidance calls on coalition forces to be first with the truth."

This is a huge story, obviously, and the Twitterverse is going wild with off-color jokes. I'm sure more salacious details are going to come out, and we'll no doubt learn in more detail why Petraeus felt he had to resign. Some will say he shouldn't have. Ricks writes: "Petraeus is retired from the military. If the affair happened back when he was on active duty, it is part of the past. And there is nothing illegal about civilians having affairs." On the other hand, it's obviously not a good thing for your CIA director to be subject to possible blackmail.

Still, Petraeus's downfall is a huge loss for the United States. Not only was he one of the country's top strategic thinkers, he was also one of the few public figures revered by all sides of the political spectrum for his dedication and good judgment. He salvaged two disastrous wars, for two very different presidents. He would have been a useful check on groupthink inside the Obama administration -- an independent voice for a White House often accused of being insular and one-dimensional. And if anyone could have restored confidence in the CIA after Benghazi, it would have been him.

Petraeus's exit leaves a bitter taste. We all make mistakes. Here's hoping he makes a comeback.


What the Weibots are saying about the Chinese congress

This is a guest post from Liz Carter, a DC-based author and translator of several Chinese textbooks:

China's 18th Party Congress began yesterday; delegates from across the country gathered in Beijing, ostensibly to make important policy decisions and determine the make-up of the top leadership ranks for the next five years or more.

China's chattering classes, on the other hand, tend to analyze the significance of the meetings from their carriage and appearance, that is, when they're not mocking it. Delegates' expensive clothing and accessories are recurring hot topics: delegate Yang Lan, a Chinese talk show host, was spotted carrying a Marc Jacobs handbag and wearing a Giorgio Armani jacket at a less important Congress earlier this year. Yesterday, as in sessions past, netizens also saw the apathy of delegates as yet more proof of the meetings' meaninglessness. Pictures of a bored and yawning former President Jiang Zemin went viral before disappearing from Chinese social media.

Attempts by authorities to reinforce the legitimacy and security of these meetings - of which the party congress is arguably the most important - have backfired; the recent ban on the sale of kitchen knives in Beijing led to widespread mockery of officials' paranoia. Well-known Weibo (Chinese for microblog) user Zuoyeben, reposted an image - since deleted - to his more than four million followers: of a sign warning the reader not to open a window during the party congress "or else." The writer Tian You simply remarked "Absurd."    

With the dawn of the Weibo era, in which social media often serves as a watchdog for China's officialdom, it is harder to control public opinion and easier to be controlled by it than ever before. Still, this has not stopped China's censors from influencing online discussion of political events. Several previously prevalent homonyms for the 18th party congress, including "Sparta," have been blocked as search terms on Weibo and commentary about the sessions had been scrubbed.

With control so tight, many see disruption as the only opportunity for meaningful action. Chinese Twitter user and signer of pro-democracy petition Charter 8 Dai Xindong wrote  "I'd like to pay my respects, in advance, to the first journalist at the 18th party press conference who is brave enough to ask where the funding for these sessions came from."

Analysts, journalists, and China watchers have put forth a variety of theories about how to interpret the congress's official pronouncements - the Hong Kong-based China Media Project even ran a series of articles analyzing the official language used in the party congress reports that postulated what the appearance and frequency of certain political buzzwords like "Mao Zedong Thought" might mean. Still, foreign and Chinese onlookers alike have acknowledged that the paucity of actual information is ridiculous. On Weibo, many users commented, "I agree!" and "Long live the Communist Party!", but with many internet users paid to guide public opinion, it is impossible to determine how much of that is genuine.

It may be that only the powerful know what they powerful are doing. CEO of the investment bank China eCapital and Weibo celebrity Wang Ran remarked, "A colleague of mine said, ‘In China, if you do business but don't pay attention to the 18th party congress reports, it just shows that your business must not be very big.'" One netizen agreed that, "that's just how state capitalism is," while another said: "If you're really doing a lot of business, you would have already picked up on everything before the party congress. If you're doing alright, you're paying attention during the party congress. Everybody else should just read the tabloids." But ultimately, Chinese and China-watchers continue to watch the congress, not because its informative, but because of the lack of information available elsewhere; in a one party state it's the best show in town.