David Petraeus made an enormous contribution to his country. He helped rescue the war effort in Iraq. He led the troop surge in Afghanistan. He was accepted by Democrats and Republicans — 94-0 — when President Barack Obama nominated him to be chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Now he is gone because of an affair with his biographer. It would be nice if someone in authority said straight out why he had to go.

The simplest answer is the one Petraeus gave in his resignation letter — that he showed “extremely poor judgment.” But extremely poor judgment in one’s personal life should not necessarily be a firing offence in one’s professional life.

Another answer is that his lover, Paula Broadwell, gave a speech at the University of Denver in which she claimed that the United States Embassy in Benghazi held Libyan militia members prisoner — a statement that runs counter to official CIA and White House comments. She may not have obtained this information from Petraeus (no evidence shows that she did), but her statement makes people wonder, fairly or not, if he was spilling secrets. He put himself in that position.

A third answer is that he was “blackmailable.” “That’s the operating premise” in that world, according to a Canadian familiar with security matters, and holds true in Canada. Some questions: Does it have the air of reality that Petraeus, after an exemplary 37-year career, would sell out to an enemy to avoid being revealed as an adulterer? Doesn’t it enhance the opportunity for blackmail if having an affair becomes a firing offence? Couldn’t the national security director who reportedly told him to resign have said instead: Tell your wife, and then you’re no longer blackmailable?

A fourth answer is that his behavior is an embarrassment to the president who nominated him, in which case he would have been held to a higher standard than many presidents, such as Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton.

Petraeus knew the rules of the game and, by having an affair, acted as if they didn’t apply to him. For that, he lost his job. Whether all the rules make sense is another question.

– The Globe and Mail,

Toronto, Nov. 12