Shaken, Not Stirred by CIA 'Values'

Why do the CIA director's peccadilloes rile us more than his policies?

James Bond is clearly a sociopath. He disposes of human life and property with abandon. He consumes women like they were snack foods. Of course, he does all this in the service of Queen and country, so we forgive him his disregard for most of the values we hold dear. And because he does it with a certain élan, impeccably tailored suits, and a well-turned quip to go with every kill shot, for 50 years he has been one of those iconic characters men wanted to be and women wanted to be with.

Even in the latest installment in the Bond saga, Skyfall, which opened in the United States last week, Daniel Craig, whose Bond is the best and most nuanced of all the incarnations of Ian Fleming's super-spy, shows his human side not so much by revealing conscience or qualms about what he does but rather by appearing wearied by all the mayhem he has had to stir up and endure. Which is apparently fine by all of us -- Skyfall has already grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide and is setting box-office records for the series.

The real question is: Do we love Bond because of his yacht and fast-car propelled globe-trotting lifestyle (he seems to be the only one who can dependably find casinos that are glamorous rather than being full of fat old losers playing the slots), or because he is actually able to get away with blowing so much stuff up without having to pay for it?

It all seems like an escapist ideal, a parallel universe in which all morality has been suspended except for the bits that don't get in the way of fun and a good story. In fact, ennobling patriotism is fine because it seems to provide the free pass that in the end is Bond's license to kill, love ‘em and leave ‘em, and tear open passenger trains with a back-hoe. It is preposterous. Fiction. And so of course, the only thing more preposterous is real life.

That was made clear when, in a tour de force of movie marketing that surpassed even this summer's stunt of having Bond and the Queen seemingly enter the Olympic stadium via parachute, America's real-life spy chief commanded the headlines with his own Bond-like behavior. David Petraeus, one of the most heralded American generals of the post-World War II period, was brought down as head of the CIA because, as everyone now knows, he had an affair with his glamorous biographer. (Glamour is relative. But the bar set by most biographers is fairly low and, Petraeus's lover, Paula Broadwell had extremely well-toned upper arms according to the assessments of every woman I have spoken with on the subject.) Citing his principles, Petraeus stepped down from his post rather than bring any further dishonor upon it.

Now, many people I know and respect greatly consider Petraeus to be an extremely admirable, capable, and intelligent guy. But the notion that the violation of anyone's "principles" led to his resignation is laughable. Further, the idea that an affair involving the CIA director would trigger a national scandal when the daily activities of the agency do not is ludicrous bordering on offensive.

What was at stake here was priggishness, not values. As others have pointed out, many of Petraeus's predecessors have had affairs as have many of their bosses and colleagues in the White House, on Capitol Hill, or elsewhere in public life. That periodically, as in the case of Petraeus or, before that Bill Clinton, some such private peccadilloes trigger scandal and many others do not, is one sign that something other than consistent application of national values is at work here. But the fact that recently the parade of public figures who have seen their careers brought to an end because of sexual misconduct has been so long -- stretching from John Edwards to an airport men's room stall in the Upper Midwest -- is a source of bewilderment and ridicule in other nations worldwide, where they hold the quaint notion that private behavior of public officials that does not affect the way they do their jobs should remain private.

It is not news that America has long been willing to chart a course quite different from that of other nations. We've always had a bit of a puritanical streak, which we have spun in our own minds into a sign of national character. But it is a different dimension of American exceptionalism that makes this whole Petraeus dust-up truly gross rather than merely ridiculous.

The real scandal here is that when the head of the CIA sleeps with someone who is not his wife, it causes a national scandal, but when the agency manages a drone program that serially violates the sovereignty of nations worldwide, that it helps formulate and then execute "kill lists" that make James Bond's most egregious sprees of violence look a kindergarten birthday party, it does not.

Our values are, it seems, even more twisted than Bond's. At least he is not so grotesquely hypocritical. It has long riled some among us that Congress thought it appropriate to impeach Bill Clinton over trivialities associated with his personal missteps, while never once challenging George W. Bush for the far greater misdeeds and very likely crimes associated with America's invasion of Iraq. We seem to be a nation that can tolerate the violation of the law, the deaths of innocents, and the gross misallocation of national assets without blinking an eye -- provided that the architects of such egregious wrongs keep their flies zipped.

Who says it's Hollywood that's screwing up America's values? We seem to be outdoing the world's finest screenwriters on that front -- and doing so without any of the charm or crisp one-liners that allow us to forgive movie wantons like James Bond.



China's Other Transition

What we still don't know about the Chinese military.

Less than 10 days before the Chinese Communist Party convened the week-long 18th Party Congress on Nov. 8, where it will officially appoint its new generation of leaders, one of the Chinese military's top generals warned that the U.S. pivot to Asia was "interference" in China's affairs. That general, Ren Haiquan, who represented China at the region-wide Shangri-La forum in June, advises Chinese leaders on both political and foreign policy developments. The fact that he made such an aggressive comment in such a sensitive time highlights the importance of the PLA, whose own leadership transition follows that of the larger Chinese political turnover.

Unlike most other armies, the PLA is not a national military, but a party army -- the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, its top officials transition roughly in tune with the rest of the party; and now, seven members of the Central Military Commission, China's top military body, are retiring. The commission manages the PLA, breaking it into four general departments that cover war planning, personnel, logistics, and armaments. All PLA officers above the U.S. rank-equivalent of second lieutenant are required to be party members. While U.S. soldiers, airmen, and marines vow to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States," the PLA oath opens with a pledge to "obey the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."

The new PLA leadership will oversee the largest standing army in the world, and one that has been steadily improving its capabilities: Over the last year, it tested two new stealth fighters, introduced China's first aircraft carrier, and expanded its ability to operate far from home. Many questions remain on how the military will evolve under incoming chairman Xi Jinping.

Here are four of the biggest:

1. Will Hu Jintao retain his position?

When President Hu replaced Jiang Zemin as party chairman in 2002, Jiang remained as the commission chairman for two years. Now, as Hu prepares to begin officially yielding power, it's unknown whether he will relinquish his military title in November, when he yields his chairmanship of the Communist Party, in March when he steps down as president and head of state, or even later. In 2002 and 2003 a similar situation caused controversy within the PLA, which had to respond to two masters: Jiang as chairman of the commission and Hu as general secretary of the party. Xi, widely seen as having a better relationship with the military, might be able to assume control earlier, but nobody can say for sure.

2. Will the position of defense minister be elevated?

The role of defense minister is oriented more toward protocol and military diplomacy than management of the PLA -- which is part of the reason why the position's current holder, Liang Guanglie, is not a vice chairman of the commission. His predecessor, Cao Gangchuan, was, though there is no explanation as to why -- the fact that nothing has been announced yet suggests the position won't be elevated. This would have implications for future meetings between the Chinese defense minister and his foreign counterparts, who should be aware that they are not talking to the highest-level uniformed officers in the Chinese military.

3. Will the role of foreign minister be elevated to the Politburo, or even the Politburo Standing Committee?

Not since 2002, when Qian Qichen served as Jiang's foreign minister, has someone from the foreign-policy establishment served in the Politburo, China's 25-member elite decision-making body. By contrast, Chinese military leaders have good access to the top Chinese leadership, since the head of state is typically also the chairman of the commission. None of the men expected to rise to the Standing Committee, the seven (or nine) member decision-making body that sits above the Politburo, has substantial foreign-policy experience, a situation that could lead to increased tensions with China's neighbors.

4. How will the new military leadership affect China's relations with the United States?

Civilian leaders appear to have firm control over the PLA. The military does have outsized influence, however, over national security issues writ large. Top generals are not only military commanders but also foreign and security policy advisors, with a near monopoly on military-related information in China.

Fifty years ago, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy's administration often overrode the advice of senior military leaders -- but only because it had developed its own options. To what extent are China's civilian leaders able to access security-related information on their own? Who informs them on security and military matters, aside from the PLA?

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