Ethical Quote of the Month: Gen. David Petraeus

“Yesterday afternoon, I went to the White House and asked the President to be allowed, for personal reasons, to resign from my position as D/CIA. After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the President graciously accepted my resignation.”

—-Gen. David H. Petraeus, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a public statement announcing his resignation from that position.

How quaint.

Democrats and Republicans must have felt that they had stumbled into the Way-Back Machine and delivered into England circa. 1904. A high government official resigning over adultery, sex,…”personal misconduct?” How bizarre! Naturally, Sen. Diane Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee,  announced that she would have supported Petraeus if he had chosen to stay. “I wish President Obama had not accepted this resignation, but I understand and respect the decision,” she said in a statement, and described Petraeus’s resignation as an “enormous loss for our nation’s intelligence community and for our country.”

The right way to leave after an affair, apparently, is to try to cover it up, submit to extortion, corrupt others in the process, and only quit when the hideout is surrounded, the hounds are clawing at the door and someone is yelling at you through a bullhorn—you know, like former GOP Sen. John Ensign, who waited two years to resign while his colleagues, like Feinstein, looked the other way. Nobody gets it in Washington—“it” being the ironclad principle that leadership must set the highest example, not the lowest level it can get away with, or the whole system rots below. Nobody, apparently, except the man who just resigned.

Gen. Petraeus, who is a genuinely gifted leader, is devoted to such ethical mandates as tenets 3, 4 and 5 of the Army’s “Eleven Principles of Leadership”:

Principle #3 – Seek Responsibility and Take Responsibility for Your Actions
We are not satisfied with performing just our duties to the best of our abilities, we look to grow and seek further challenges, and always, when in charge, accept the consequences of our decisions, absorb the negative and pass on the praises.

Principle #4 – Make Sound and Timely Decisions
Leaders must be able to reason under the most critical condition and decide quickly what action to take.

Principle #5 – Set the Example
No aspect of leadership is more powerful. Our personal example affects people more than any amount of instruction or form of discipline. We are the role model.

The last most of all. In the intelligence community, an affair signifies betrayal, dishonesty and a lack of trustworthiness, in addition to poor self-control and judgment. Entanglements with mistresses and paramours create vulnerability to extortion and foreign manipulation: it is strictly forbidden by CIA rules. For the leader to violate such a core restriction and continue in charge would send a signal throughout the organization that the rule, and others, was window-dressing, nothing more.

I have no doubt, none at all, that had Petraeus chosen to stay, the public, the Obama Administration, Republicans (who idolize him) and Democrats like Feinstein would have been thrilled to allow him, and to let the scandal fade away. After all, he’s good at his job—it was just one mistake—it’s only sex—lots of leaders do it—he’s only human—it was personal conduct…forgiveness is divine. We know these by heart, don’t we? They were all trotted out ad nauseam in the defense of President Clinton, who as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces also should be living by the Army’s principles of leadership, and who not only engaged in on-the-job adultery but with a subordinate employee, and lied about it under oath, twice. Accountability is almost invisible on Capitol Hill. Leadership means holding power, keeping it, wielding it, not ennobling it. The public sees so little true leadership that it no longer recognizes what a leader is.

The Washington leader who most understands and lives by the principles of leadership just gave up his position because he understands them. It is a profound message and a courageous one that he delivered. I do not expect the alleged leaders left behind to understand it at all.


Typo alert: Many thanks to Jeff 


Graphic: Naked DC

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

18 thoughts on “Ethical Quote of the Month: Gen. David Petraeus

  1. Wait a minute, Jack. Nowhere do I see anything about just how long this affair had been going on. A month? A year?

    And what about this – The FBI discovered the relationship by monitoring Petraeus’ emails, after being alerted Broadwell may have had access to his personal email account, two of the officials said. (Source – )

    Personally, I think there may be more to this story than meets the eye.

  2. Sorry, I just saw this battle worn cliche and just had to share… “By any measure, through his lifetime of service, David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger,” Obama said of the four-star general, who led American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Source – )

    Yep, I cowered every night under the covers absolutely terrified that those Iraqis were gonna shoot my dog. But, thanks to David, I can now hold my head high and walk the streets knowing our country is safer and stronger. (Hell, just saying that makes me reach for another cigarette.)

  3. By resigning Petraeus did an ethical thing. We might find out about a lot of unethical things in the future. It might be unethical of me to assume we have not seen it all yet, but I think there is much more to the story and most of it will be unethical. Whether Petraeus is the perpetrator or not remains to be seen.

  4. If it turns out that Petraeus is only being “ethical” because it serves an unethical series of cover ups and political games it will do much more damage to the idea that there can be ethics in politics than good. Ethics and politics are both in precarious positions right now.

  5. While I’m glad he did the right thing and resigned I don’t see how you can separate the resignation from the actions that brought it on. By having the affair he violated the trust of not only his wife but his subordinates at the CIA and in the Army. He also placed our country’s national security at risk by doing so.

  6. The man resigned. He didn’t get in front of TV cameras and try to worm out of it. He didn’t blame everybody or anybody. He was wrong, he admitted it, and he resigned simply and with as much dignity as the situation could allow. Now let the chips fall where they may.

  7. A General Officer at the Pre-Command course at FT Leavenworth (where Gen Petraeus was once the commander) for in-coming Army Brigade Commanders once told the students, “Odds are one of you needs to hear this….Just remember, you didn’t get any cuter, funnier or more attractive. When those young things start flirting, it’s at your position…it’s not you…Don’t ruin your career!”

    If he heeded this advice, he also could have avoided ruining his reputation, his legacy and potentially his marriage.

    A quote from USAToday article: “He didn’t just make a bad decision – he made repeated bad decisions for many months as he carried on that affair.”

    I know this couple personally as my husband served on his personal staff and Holly has been a mentor for me as an Army spouse since the late 90’s. She is one of the smartest most genuinely good people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. She is a staunch military family advocate and is respected by soldiers and family members throughout the ranks. Her “Army Sisters” grieve for her.

    David Petraeus has always been a risk-taker and wanted to win seemingly un-achievable things. This personality has served him and his Country well time and time again. But this is where he came unglued. He wanted Broadwell despite the fact that she was not really attainable and going for her was going to put everything he stood for in jeopardy. It is astonishing a man like that would put National security on the line. It appears he was a bit distracted sending multiple emails a day to her when he should have been focusing on the Benghazi incident.

    He HAD to resign. Yes, he is in an entirely different category than JFK, John Edwards or Clinton. For that I applaud his courage and his leadership even after his fall.

    Unfortunately for the entire Petraeus family, this isn’t even close to being “over” and they all have to endure public scrutiny. My heart breaks for all of them.

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