National Security

Four-Star Egos

The cult of the general from Douglas MacArthur to David Petraeus.

In May 1934, reporters Drew Pearson and Robert Allen published a column in the Washington Herald accusing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur of "dictatorial, insubordinate, disloyal, mutinous and disrespectful" actions during the Bonus March, a peaceful veterans demonstration. MacArthur had broken up the protest by force -- using tanks commanded by Gen. George Patton -- back in July of 1932, an action that forever stained his reputation. Enraged by Pearson and Allen's claims, MacArthur sued them for $1.75 million. That scared the hell out of the columnists, who knew they'd have trouble proving their allegations. Here comes the good part.

Among MacArthur's enemies was Rep. Ross Collins, a powerful Mississippi Democrat -- drawl, jowls, slicked hair, the whole bit -- who controlled military appropriations and lived in the Chastleton Apartments on 16th Street and had seen MacArthur often in his building. Collins disliked MacArthur, and when he found out that Pearson and Allen were looking for something to hold against the general, he told them about the visits. Pearson and Allen followed up on Collins's tip and discovered that the 55-year old MacArthur was visiting Isabel Rosario Cooper, a 19-year old Filipino film star whom he'd brought with him from his last command in Manila and with whom he was having an affair.

Isabel was young and beautiful, and MacArthur showered her with gifts -- visiting her every day during his long lunches while he was chief of staff. But Isabel grew tired of the general and found his attention stifling, so she went to live with her brother in Baltimore, which is where Pearson and Allen found her. She then shared with the reporters what MacArthur had told her about Herbert Hoover (a "weakling," he said), and Franklin Roosevelt ("that cripple in the White House").

Predictably, when MacArthur was told that the first witness to be called in the case would be Isabel, he scrambled. He ended the lawsuit and paid Isabel $15,000 in what we would now consider "hush money" -- delivered to her by his military aide, none other than future President Dwight Eisenhower.

Shocking? What's shocking about the MacArthur story is that he wasn't worried about what Roosevelt would say about Isabel -- he was worried about what his aging and puritanical mother "Pinky," who lived with him at his official quarters at Fort Myer, would say about her. For Roosevelt not only knew about Isabel, he told his cabinet that he'd "authorized" MacArthur to sue Pearson, whom he described as "a chronic liar."

Nor, it seems, was MacArthur concerned at all that FDR would find out that he'd described him as "that cripple in the White House." It wasn't because the general lacked enemies within the president's inner circle: FDR's brain trust regularly derided him as "General Goober of Anacostia Flats," and tittered away at him when he showed up at White House receptions. But Roosevelt seemed more than willing to overlook all that, for he had plans for MacArthur, which included selling his military budget to a recalcitrant Congress -- and to the irascible Ross Collins, who wanted deeper cuts than the president. And who better to sell the president's budget than that great hero of World War One -- Douglas MacArthur?

Inevitably, the details of this salacious scandal made the rounds of Washington, leaving the admirers of MacArthur -- and he had a great many -- puzzling over how a man of such obvious achievements could so recklessly place them in jeopardy. Now, eight decades later, Washington is asking precisely the same question of David Petraeus.

Petraeus's admirers will recoil from any comparison of their hero with the much-maligned MacArthur, whose reputation has suffered grievously over the years because of his actions during the Bonus March and his later showdown with Harry Truman. And they would correctly point out several notable differences: While MacArthur finished first in his West Point class and holds one of the highest grade points in academy history, second only to Robert E. Lee, it is difficult to append the word "scholar" to his name. Not so with Petraeus, who holds an advanced degree from Princeton and authored the now famous U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Then too, MacArthur flirted endlessly with higher office and yearned after the presidency -- a virus only rumored to have infected Petraeus, despite his adamant denials. Nor would anyone suppose that Petraeus would confront a president to the point of near insubordination, as MacArthur confronted Harry Truman, who relieved him of his command for doing so. MacArthur hated Truman and made it known; it's hard to imagine the cautious Petraeus hating anyone -- most especially a president.

But the differences might well end there. Petraeus and MacArthur share more than a history of sexual peccadilloes: Like every great military commander, both boasted an unstinting ambition and an enormous ego, and left a long list of bitter and exasperated enemies within the U.S. military in their wake. Such qualities are a common thread running through our nation's history -- for in the pantheon of great American generals, there has not been a single modest man.

Let's go back to the very beginning. George Washington was a far better president than general -- he was beaten in nearly every engagement except Trenton (where he faced drunken Hessians) and the last, at Yorktown. He promoted his favorites, picked terrible subordinates, was overly sensitive, quick to anger, and stupidly impatient. That we won with him at all is, as one historian states, "almost a miracle."

Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, won nearly every battle he fought, but at a terrible cost. At Cold Harbor, his soldiers pinned their names to their uniforms so their corpses could be identified. "His ambition is like a little engine," his friend Billy Sherman said. Grant's great weakness was liquor -- which spurred Lincoln to quip that he should find out what he drank so more might be sent him. "I need him," Lincoln said. "He fights."

Lee is different. We celebrate Robert E. Lee, an outlier in our pantheon who talked endlessly of doing the "honorable" thing, though we suspect now that he probably did that in reverse order -- he decided what he wanted to do, and called it honorable. He was stubborn to the point of being sightless, as he was on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when he dismissed a better plan of attack from his subordinate -- James Longstreet -- in favor of a direct assault on Union lines. After the war, George Pickett, who mounted that infamous charge, could hardly bring himself to face him. "That man murdered my division," he told a friend. Lee's disease was that he promoted Virginians like A.P. Hill and Dick Ewell (and that curse on humanity, Jubal Early), and favored them over better and more capable officers. It was his one failing, but it might have been fatal.

The great triumvirate of America's European victory in World War II -- George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley -- doesn't fare much better. Marshall, the acknowledged architect of that triumph and after Washington our greatest general, is nearly untouchable in the annals of our military history -- but there are detractors. He was an officer who stood aloof from his colleagues; many remember him as a figure without any personal warmth who was relentlessly ruthless in pursuit of his goals. "That man ruined my husband," a wife is quoted as saying when she saw him pass. When he assigned an officer to an overseas command, the officer told him he would report after he finished packing. That's all right, said Marshall, who was put off by the delay: "We will not be needing your services."

The same was said of Eisenhower, even by his closest friends: "I would rather be commanded by an Arab," Patton wrote in his diary. Others noted that when the war started, "Ike" could regularly be seen "brown nosing" the high command. Eisenhower had Lee's disease: He promoted and stood by his friends -- like Gen. Mark Clark, who, trailed by a bevy of worshipful reporters, insisted on being photographed "from my good side" and badly botched Allied operations in Italy.

Ike, like Petraeus and MacArthur, also sought female company as a respite from the rigors of command. Eisenhower's Broadwell was Kay Summersby, who accompanied him everywhere during the war -- though it now seems clear that their affection remained unconsummated. Like Broadwell, described to me this week by a civilian familiar with her relationship with Petraeus in Afghanistan, Summersby was Ike's "deputy wife."

Finally, there's the legendary Omar Bradley, dubbed "the G.I. General" by journalist Ernie Pyle because he was so beloved by his men. But was he? General Terry de la Mesa Allen described him as "a phony Abraham Lincoln." Bradley returned the favor: He relieved Allen, shuttling him off to the rear. Eisenhower, exasperated, gave Allen a new command, which so irritated Bradley that, after the war, it was one of the reasons that he wrote that he thought Ike "one of the most overrated men in military history."

The backbiting would no doubt sound familiar to Petraeus. Many years ago, I was asked to provide a briefing on a point of military history to a group of senior military commanders at the Pentagon, during the course of which I happened to mention General Petraeus's name. It was mistake: The room fell uncomfortably and starkly silent. After a moment, I smiled and plunged on, ignoring the long stares of the officers facing me.

"They know him well, have served with him, and don't like him," my host later explained. He shrugged: "It's his ego, you see. He promotes himself."

There we have it: The blemished pantheon of American military commanders, all of them stained with ambition and ego, and brim full of failings. At the end of the day, Petraeus fits in after all. The combination of unstinting ambition and enormous ego that led to his downfall are precisely the qualities that can be found among those great American commanders who preceded him.

Just look at MacArthur's career. After Isabel was shunted aside, he was used by Roosevelt to fight Ross Collins on the budget -- and won. He then served as military advisor to the Philippines, and subsequently retired. But in 1940, with war looming, Marshall urged FDR to return him to uniform to face the Japanese. Roosevelt didn't hesitate: MacArthur knew how to fight, and his country needed him.

The same might be true now of David Petraeus. Historians note with passable interest the blushing scandals of Isabel, Kay, and Paula, but inevitably return to those moments that define a great, if flawed, military commander: the cold and bitter winter at Valley Forge, the endless afternoon at Gettysburg, the day when Doug waded ashore at Leyte, when Ike stood aghast at Buchenwald -- and when Dave stood in the Senate, right arm raised, and testified that while nobody knows "how this might end" he, at least, had a plan.

Win McNamee/Getty Images


Good While It Lasted

Did David Petraeus leave his mark at the CIA?

It was something more than a blip, but not a lot more. David Petraeus hardly inhabited Langley long enough to establish anything that can rightly be called a legacy. His brief directorship of the CIA is unlikely to encompass very many of the pages of any future biographies written about him. Neither will it form a large part of histories of the agency, despite the drive that Petraeus has brought to each of his jobs.

Petraeus's tenure as CIA director was one of the shortest ever. It exceeded by one day the unhappy directorship of William Raborn, a retired Navy vice admiral whom President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed in 1965. Only two other CIA bosses had even shorter tenures. James Schlesinger was director for five months in 1973 before becoming defense secretary when that position unexpectedly became vacant. George H.W. Bush led the CIA during the last year of Gerald Ford's administration and would have been happy to continue under President Jimmy Carter, but Carter wanted to install his own man. And though Bush won enough admirers at the agency during his one year there that the Langley campus is now named after him, none of these short-timers otherwise had significant lasting impact on the CIA and how it does its business.

Especially given the circumstances under which Petraeus went out, he is unlikely to be memorialized with something like the naming of a CIA facility. But the way he came in was admirable. He knew he had much to learn as he transitioned from his military career to an enterprise that, though still part of the national security apparatus, involves much different lines of work. He collected advice on how to run the agency. He was aware of some of the pitfalls earlier directors had encountered and thought about how to avoid them. One mistake Petraeus easily could have made, having become accustomed to the personal staffs and acolytes he enjoyed in the military, would have been to bring with him to his new job an entourage of aides. In not doing so he avoided the error of a recent past director, Porter Goss, who deserved better than the bad press he got and whose problems stemmed less from his own performance than from the bevy of assistants he brought with him from Capitol Hill. It is these sorts of things that go a long way to determining the nature of the relationship between a director and the workforce, the effectiveness of the director's leadership, and ultimately the impression of success or failure that surrounds him.

Possibly the biggest lasting consequence of Petraeus's directorship has been to dispel some of the very concerns about the leadership of intelligence agencies that his own appointment tended to highlight. One concern was how a media-savvy celebrity could fit into an organization where secrecy is a stock in trade. Petraeus came to the job as the most celebrated U.S. military leader of his generation and with probably more public name recognition than any other CIA director had at the time of his appointment. The combination of a star and a secret spy agency nonetheless worked, mainly because Petraeus did not behave like a star, at least publicly. Petraeus certainly was aware of the hazards involved and viewed these as another set of potential mistakes to be avoided. The lowering of his public profile as he made the change from general to CIA director was so stark it became the subject of media commentary. He kept a profile that was lower even than the one his immediate predecessor, Leon Panetta, kept when he was director. The lasting lesson is that even stars can adapt.

That star power, however, despite Petraeus wisely occluding it, will benefit the standing and stature of the CIA even now that the celebrity has gone. Petraeus was not drafted into the job; he wanted it. If someone with his stature and his post-Army options sought to head this agency, then the obvious conclusion is that the agency must still be -- notwithstanding the dislike, disdain, and disregard to which it is frequently subjected -- very important.

Petraeus did not rock boats at the agency for the sake of rocking boats. He did not see his mission as a turnaround job. Panetta's directorship was widely regarded as successful, as reflected in the Senate confirming -- with no dissenting votes -- his nomination to be defense secretary. Petraeus also was genuinely impressed with how much gets accomplished at the CIA with resources far smaller than what he was accustomed to having when heading major military commands. And the favorable things he said about his new organization seemed to be more than polite boilerplate.

Another concern, frequently voiced even before Petraeus became director but one that his appointment exacerbated in the eyes of some, is what can be labeled as the militarization of the CIA. This concern has several aspects, including a worry about military requirements shoving aside other national needs in the allocation of limited intelligence resources. A more fundamental aspect is a possible loss of the CIA's focus on the core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence if additional attention is devoted to paramilitary activities such as the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists.

This is a legitimate worry, but it is too often expressed in terms of the backgrounds of senior leaders in the intelligence community. The fact that three of the four men (including the incumbent, James Clapper) who have served as director of national intelligence (DNI) -- the job established in 2005 to oversee the entire intelligence community without running any single agency such as the CIA -- have been retired military officers has been much noted. But too much attention is devoted to past career tracks, whether of the DNIs or of Petraeus. It is unsurprising and appropriate that many people filling such positions have come out of the military. That is where much of the talent with high-level national security experience is to be found.

Nonetheless, the attention to this subject underlay the retirement of Petraeus from the Army before he took over the agency. He entered his CIA job as Mr. -- not General -- Petraeus. Some reporting indicates that the retirement was President Barack Obama's idea rather than Petraeus's own. In any event, the retirement made Petraeus an exception. None of the previous CIA directors who came out of the military took that step upon being appointed to the job. The most recent two military appointees before Petraeus -- Adm. Stansfield Turner, who was Carter's director, and Michael Hayden, an Air Force general who served under George W. Bush -- retired from the military only after each had already headed the CIA for two years.

Part of Petraeus's attraction in taking over the CIA was that he saw his mission there partly as a continuation of previous goals, including counterterrorism, that he had pursued in the military. But the CIA is not where policy that determines the extent and shape of the country's counterterrorism program is made. That policy is made in the White House. The future nature of the program will not depend on the identity, or the background, of the CIA's director.

Petraeus leaves the agency's relationships with other elements of the national security apparatus, both military and civilian, in rather good shape. We have heard less, lately, about the tensions between the CIA and the office of the DNI that stem from the confusion created by the reorganization that the 9/11 Commission devised. The public reaction by current DNI Clapper to Petraeus's resignation was a statement that praised "Dave's" contributions. Even poorly designed institutional structures can be made to work with enough skill and will from the people at the top. Individual working relationships that those people forge are critical, and different people in the same positions might not be as good at forging such ties. Nonetheless, the tone that the people at the top set shapes the work habits of the folks lower down in their organizations. Once formed, the habits can persist even after leaders change.

Had Petraeus remained CIA director for at least another couple of years, it is almost inevitable that he would have found marks to make that would add up to something that could legitimately be called a legacy. The man simply has exhibited too much initiative and dynamism in his career to expect otherwise. Perhaps he would have championed some doctrinal intelligence counterpart to the counterinsurgency manual he wrote at Fort Leavenworth. But we will never know.

Meanwhile, the CIA will shake off this latest turbulence and go about performing its mission. Despite the public distractions, the vast majority of the workforce is still focused on performing or supporting the core functions of collecting and analyzing intelligence. Scandals and controversies are, for that vast majority, outside noise that has little or no impact on their jobs. The latest scandal briefly provides a topic for water-cooler conversation. And then people go back to work.