The general's great betrayal


David Petraeus, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stands with his wife, Holly Knowlton, at a review stand on 5th Avenue while watching the Veterans Day Parade in New York, Nov. 11, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Within military circles, adultery represents not only betrayal of the wife, but also of the team.

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  • Petraeus spent as much time cultivating journalists as fighting enemies.

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Gen. David Petraeus is a war hero and a very intelligent man. Given his history, the maelstrom surrounding him must seem bizarre to those outside the United States who may see Petraeus’ downfall as the worst manifestation of America’s puritanism.

There is more to the story than meets the eye, however. Within military circles, adultery represents not only betrayal of the wife, but also of the team.  The conduct and activities of officers’ wives impacts careers. While a general concentrates on deployments abroad, his wife focuses on the families of those who serve under him. If she shirks her duty, his career suffers. Simply put, Petraeus could never have risen to the top had it not been for Holly Petraeus’ hard work. His adultery betrayed a teammate, not only a wife.

Most plaudits surrounding Petraeus revolve around his work in Iraq. Here too the story is complicated. In 2003-2004, Petraeus served as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, based in Mosul. Rather than fight insurgents, he sought to co-opt them, placing senior Baathists in sensitive positions and reaching out to Islamists. He achieved calm, but only so long as he kept the money flowing. As soon as he departed and the money dried up, the men he empowered turned on U.S. forces. While aides acknowledged their mistake, Petraeus survived the fallout by blaming his successors. This caused grumbling in the military, but Petraeus had cultivated the press, and emerged untarnished.

During the insurgency which followed, Syria became Al Qaeda’s highway, with Bashar al-Assad’s blessing. While the White House sought to isolate Assad, Petraeus lobbied to travel to Damascus. He believed that he alone was capable of persuading Assad; he did not recognize what a prize his visit would be for the Syrian leader weathering isolation. Such action shows ego seldom seen outside political circles.

Perhaps Petraeus redeemed himself with the Iraq surge, but here again ego and disrespect for his team reigned supreme. Petraeus was not alone in crafting or implementing his strategy. The reason his name—more than Ray Odierno or Peter Chiarelli—is known to the public is because Petraeus spent as much time cultivating journalists as fighting enemies.

Benghazi was different. The terror attack was tragic, but the scandal was the cover-up. Petraeus apparently testified that White House proxies edited his talking points. No longer is he the Teflon general, however. Had he resigned then to protest politicization of intelligence, he could have done so with honor. That for a time he allowed himself to become a tool for corrupt politicians is perhaps the worst indictment he could face.


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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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