I ran into David Petraeus the other night. Or rather, I ran after him.
It’s been more than a year since I first tried to connect with the retired four-star general and ex-CIA director—and no luck yet. On a recent evening, as the sky was turning from a crisp ice blue into a host of Easter-egg hues, I missed him again. Led from a curtained “backstage” area where he had retreated after a midtown Manhattan event, Petraeus moved briskly to a staff-only room, then into a tightly packed elevator, and momentarily out onto the street before being quickly ushered into a waiting late-model, black Mercedes S550.
And then he was gone, whisked into the warm New York night, companions in tow.
For the previous hour, Petraeus had been in conversation with Peter Bergen, a journalist, CNN analyst, and vice president at New America, the think tank sponsoring the event. Looking fit and well-rested in a smart dark-blue suit, the former four-star offered palatable, pat, and—judging from the approving murmurs of the audience—popular answers to a host of questions about national security issues ranging from the fight against the Islamic State to domestic gun control.
While voicing support for the Second Amendment, for example, he spoke about implementing “common sense solutions to the availability of weapons,” specifically keeping guns out of the hands of “domestic abusers” and those on the no-fly list. Even as he expressed “great respect” for those who carried out acts of torture in the wake of 9/11, he denounced its use—except in the case of a “ticking time bomb.” In an era when victory hasn’t been a word much used in relation to the American military, he even predicted something close to it on the horizon. “I’ve said from the very beginning, even in the darkest days, the Islamic State would be defeated in Iraq,” he told the appreciative crowd.
I went to the event hoping to ask Petraeus a question or two, but Bergen never called on me during the Q&A portion of the evening. My attendance was not, however, a total loss.
Watching the retired general in action, I was reminded of the peculiarity of this peculiar era—an age of generals whose careers are made in winless wars; years in which such high-ranking, mission-unaccomplished officers rotate through revolving doors that lead not only to top posts with major weapons merchants, but also too-big-to-fail banks, top universities, cutting-edge tech companies, healthcare firms, and other corporate behemoths. Hardly a soul, it seems, cares that these generals and admirals have had leading roles in quagmire wars or even, in two prominent cases, saw their government service cease as a result of career-ending scandal. And Citizen David Petraeus is undoubtedly the epitome of this phenomenon.
Celebrated as the most cerebral of generals, the West Point grad and Princeton PhD rose to stardom during the Iraq War—credited with pacifying the restive city of Mosul before becoming one of the architects of the new Iraqi Army. Petraeus would then return to the United States where he revamped and revived the Army’s failed counterinsurgency doctrine from the Vietnam War, before being tapped to lead “The Surge” of US forces in Iraq—an effort to turn around the foundering conflict. Through it all, Petraeus waged one of the most deft self-promotion campaigns in recent memory, cultivating politicians, academics, and especially fawning journalists who reported on his running stamina, his penchant for push-ups, and even—I kid you not—how he woke a lieutenant from what was thought to be an irreversible coma by shouting the battle cry of his unit.
A series of biographers would lionize the general who, after achieving what to some looked like success in Iraq, went on to head US Central Command, overseeing the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. When the military career of his subordinate General Stanley McChrystal imploded, Petraeus was sent once more unto the breach to spearhead an Afghan War surge and win another quagmire war.
And win Petraeus did. Not in Afghanistan, of course. That war grinds on without end. But the Teflon general somehow emerged from it all with people talking about him as a future presidential contender. Looking back at Petraeus’ successes, one understands just what a feat this was. Statistics show that Petraeus never actually pacified Mosul, which has now been under the control of the Islamic State for years. The army Petraeus helped build in Iraq crumbled in the face of that same force which, in some cases, was even supported by Sunni fighters Petraeus had put on the US payroll to make The Surge appear successful.
Indeed, Petraeus had come to New America’s New York headquarters to answer one question in particular: “What will the next president’s national security challenges be?” Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan: precisely the set of groups he had fought, places he had fought in, or what had resulted from his supposed victories.
“What can you do with a general, when he stops being a general? Oh, what can you do with a general who retires?”
These are not, however, questions which seem to have plagued David Petraeus. He retired from the Army in 2011 to take a job as director of the CIA, only to resign in disgrace a year later when it was revealed that he had leaked classified information to his biographer and one-time lover Paula Broadwell and then lied about it to the FBI. Thanks to a deal with federal prosecutors, Petraeus pled guilty to just a single misdemeanor and served no jail time, allowing him, as the New York Times reported last year, “to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.”
In the Bing and Berlin era, following back-to-back victories in world wars, things were different. Take George C. Marshall, a five-star general and the most important US military leader during World War II who is best remembered today for the post-war European recovery plan that bore his name. Fellow five-star general and later president Dwight Eisenhower recalled that, during the Second World War, Marshall “did not want to sit in Washington and be a chief of staff. I am sure he wanted a field command, but he wouldn’t even allow his chief [President Franklin Roosevelt] to know what he wanted, because he said, ‘I am here to serve and not to satisfy personal ambition.'” That mindset seemed to remain his guiding directive after he retired in 1945 and went on to serve as a special envoy to China, secretary of state, and secretary of defense.
Marshall reportedly refused a number of lucrative offers to write his memoirs, including the then-princely sum of a million dollars after taxes from Time and Life publisher Henry Luce. He did so on the grounds that it was unethical to profit from service to the United States or to benefit from the sacrifices of the men who had served under him, supposedly telling one publisher “that he had not spent his life serving the government in order to sell his life story to the Saturday Evening Post.” In his last years, he finally cooperated with a biographer and gave his archives to the George C. Marshall Research Foundation on “the condition that no monetary returns from a book or books based on his materials would go to him or his family but would be used for the research program of the Marshall Foundation.” Even his biographer was asked to “waive the right to any royalties from the biography.” Marshall also declined to serve on any corporate boards.
Marshall may have been a paragon of restraint and moral rectitude, but he wasn’t alone. As late as the years 1994-1998, according to an analysis by the Boston Globe, fewer than 50 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives. By 2004-2008, that number had jumped to 80 percent. An analysis by the Washington DC-based nonprofit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that it was still at a lofty 70 percent for the years 2009-2011.
Celebrity generals like Petraeus and fellow former four-star generals Stanley McChrystal (whose military career was also consumed in the flames of scandal) and Ray Odierno (who retired amid controversy), as well as retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, don’t even need to enter the world of arms dealers and defense firms. These days, those jobs may increasingly be left to second-tier military luminaries like Marine Corps general James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now on the board of directors at Raytheon, as well as former Vice Admiral and Director of Naval Intelligence Jack Dorsett, who joined Northrop Grumman.
If, however, you are one of the military’s top stars, the sky is increasingly the limit. You can, for instance, lead a consulting firm (McChrystal and Mullen) or advise or even join the boards of banks and civilian corporations like JPMorgan Chase (Odierno), Jet Blue (McChrystal), and General Motors (Mullen).
For his part, after putting his extramarital affair behind him, Petraeus became a partner at the private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. LP. (KKR), where he also serves as the chairman of the KKR Global Institute and, according to his bio, “oversees the institute’s thought leadership platform focused on geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues.” His lieutenants include a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager for President George W. Bush, as well as a former leading light at Morgan Stanley.
KKR’s portfolio boasts a bit of everything, from Alliant Insurance Services and Panasonic Healthcare to a host of Chinese firms (Rundong Automobile Group and Asia Dairy, among them). There are also defense firms under its umbrella, including TASC, the self-proclaimed “premier provider of advanced systems engineering and integration services across the Intelligence Community, Department of Defense, and civilian agencies of the federal government,” and Airbus Group’s defense electronics business which KKR recently bought for $1.2 billion.
KKR is, however, just where Petraeus’s post-military, post-CIA résumé begins.
“Nobody thinks of assigning him, when they stop wining and dining him,” wrote Irving Berlin 68 years ago.
How times do change. When it comes to Petraeus, the wining and dining is evidently unending—as when Financial Times columnist Edward Luce took him to the Four Seasons Restaurant earlier this year for a lunch of tuna tartare, poached salmon, and a bowl of mixed berries with cream.
At the elegant eatery, just a short walk from Petraeus’s Manhattan office, the former CIA chief left Luce momentarily forlorn. “When I inquire what keeps him busy nowadays his answer goes on for so long I half regret asking,” he wrote.
I evidently heard a version of the same well prepared lines when, parrying a question from journalist Fred Kaplan at the New America event I attended, Petraeus produced a wall of words explaining how busy he is. In the process, he shed light on just what it means to be a retired celebrity general from America’s winless wars. “I’ve got a day job with KKR. I teach once a week at the City University of New York—Honors College. I do a week per semester at USC [University of Southern California]. I do several days at Harvard. I’m on the speaking circuit. I do pro bono stuff like this. I’m the co-chairman of the Wilson Institute’s Global Advisory Council, the senior vice president of RUSI [Royal United Services Institute, a research institution focused on military issues]. I’m on three other think tank boards,” he said.
In an era when fellow leakers of government secrets—from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou to Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning—have ended up in exile or prison, Petraeus’s post-leak life has obviously been quite another matter.
The experience of former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake who shared unclassified information about that agency’s wasteful ways with a reporter is more typical of what leakers should expect. Although the Justice Department eventually dropped the most serious charges against him—he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor—he lost his job and his pension, went bankrupt, and has spent years working at an Apple store after being prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act. “My social contacts are gone, and I’m persona non grata,” he told Defense One last year. “I can’t find any work in government contracting or in the quasi-government space, those who defend whistleblowers won’t touch me.”
Petraeus, on the other hand, shared with his lover and biographer eight highly classified “black books” that the government says included “the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant David Howell Petraeus’s discussions with the President.” Petraeus was prosecuted, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $100,000.
Yet it’s Petraeus who today moves in rarified circles and through hallowed halls, with memberships and posts at one influential institution after another. In addition to the positions he mentioned at New America, his CV includes: honorary visiting professor at Exeter University, co-chairman of the Task Force on North America at the Council on Foreign Relations, co-chairman of the Global Advisory Committee at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, member of the Concordia Summit’s Concordia Leadership Council, member of the board of trustees at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, member of the National Security Advisory Council of the US Global Leadership Coalition, and a seat on the board of directors at the Atlantic Council.
About a year ago, I tried to contact Petraeus through KKR as well as the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, to get a comment on a story. I never received a reply.
I figured he was ducking me—or anyone asking potentially difficult questions—or that his gatekeepers didn’t think I was important enough to respond to. But perhaps he was simply too busy. To be honest, I didn’t realize just how crowded his schedule was. (Of course, FT’s Edward Luce reports that when he sent Petraeus an email invite, the retired general accepted within minutes, so maybe it’s because I wasn’t then holding out the prospect of a meal at the Four Seasons.)
I attended the New America event because I had yet more questions for Petraeus. But I wasn’t as fortunate as Fred Kaplan—author, by the way, of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War—and wasn’t quite speedy or nimble enough to catch the former general before he slipped into the backseat of that luxurious Mercedes sedan.
Irving Berlin’s “What Can You Do With A General?” ends on a somber note that sounds better in Crosby’s dulcimer tones than it reads on the page: “It seems this country never has enjoyed, so many one- and two- and three- and four-star generals, unemployed.”
Today, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retiring after 38 years receives a pension of about $20,000 a month, not exactly a shabby unemployment check for the rest of your life, but one that many in the tight-knit fraternity of top officers are still eager to supplement. Take General Cartwright, who joined Raytheon in 2012 and, according to Morningstar, the investment research firm, receives close to $364,000 per year in compensation from that company while holding more than $1.2 million in its stock.
All of this left me with yet more questions for Petraeus (whose pension is reportedly worth more than $18,000 per month or $220,000 per year) about a mindset that seems light years distant from the one Marshall espoused during his retirement. I was curious, for instance, about his take on why the winning of wars isn’t a prerequisite for cashing in on one’s leadership in them, and why the personal and professional costs of scandal are so incredibly selective.
Today, it seems, a robust Rolodex with the right global roster, a marquee name, and a cultivated geopolitical brand covers a multitude of sins. And that’s precisely the type of firepower that Petraeus brings to the table.
After a year without a reply, I got in touch with KKR again. This time, through an intermediary, Petraeus provided me an answer to a new request for an interview. “Thank you for your interest, Nick, but he respectfully declines at this time,” I was told.
I’m hoping, however, that the retired general changes his mind. For the privilege of asking Petraeus various questions, I’d be more than happy to take him to lunch at the Four Seasons. With that tony power-lunch spot closing down soon as part of a plan to relocate, we’d need to act fast. Getting a table could be tough.
Luckily, I know just the name to drop.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.