Within hours of the sex scandal involving CIA Director David Petraeus and author Paula Broadwell becoming public, a familiar Washington ritual commenced: the lionization of a fallen establishment-designated superstar. Without question, the most absurd observation offered thus far comes from CNN contributor Peter Bergen:
"Historians will likely judge David Petraeus to be the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower."
Eisenhower liberated Europe from Hitler's tyranny and played a key role in shaping the post-war world I grew up in. Petraeus recycled and somewhat modernized a still-failed U.S. approach to counterinsurgency that slightly reduced the scope of sectarian violence Iraq--a country that remains a political basket case nearly a decade after the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Petraeus' tenure as supreme commander in Afghanistan produced no military breaththroughs in that conflict, though to be fair neither has any other commander to hold that post.
What's also escaped the notice of pundits is how far Petraeus the CIA director has deviated from the counterinsurgency doctrince developed by Petraeus the soldier.
As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the CIA under Petraeus has engaged in the use of so-called drone-delivered "signature strikes" against Islamic militants in Pakistan. The attacks are based not on specific intelligence about specific individuals but are instead based on subjective "signatures" allegedly associated with militant activity. The approach is similar in concept to the "free fire zones" utilized by the American military in the Vietnam War, where whole areas were deemed so infested with Viet Cong insurgents that any individual in the declared zone was deemed hostile and thus targetable. Those "signature strikes" have done nothing to deter men like Major Nidal Hassan from committing acts of terror here at home.
How then do we explain the hand-wringing over Petraeus' resignation?
Petraeus was a master at cultivating his public image and at stroking the egos of House and Senate members.
He's not the only flag-rank officer to exhibit those skills over the last quarter-century, but he was arguably the best at it...and when a country and a Congress value those skills over actual measureable battlefield success, it's yet another sign of national decline.