The Petraeus Secret

Our Political Editor discovers that the second law of thermodynamics is alive and well in the USA, thanks to those men with lots of medals on their chests. And to some with simply bare chests, too.

A system is only as secure as its weakest part and the weakest part of any human system is a twitching genital.

This is the dawning realisation of the American intelligence community as it discovers the bonkers sexual spiderweb woven by David Petraeus, the head of the CIA. The Petraeus psychodrama began when Florida socialite Jill Kelley, who looks like a cross between Sandra Bullock and Ricky Hatton, complained to FBI Special Agent Frederick Humphries about some unkind anonymous emails she was receiving. Special Agent Humphries is known to friends as a man of “conservative political views and a reputation for aggressiveness”, both of which may have previously influenced his decision to send her a picture of his bare chest.

Humphries looked into the matter and discovered the culprit was Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ biographer, who had been having an affair with the subject of her book. Perhaps it was an attempt at gonzo-journalism aimed at putting her at the heart of the story. Regardless, she viewed Kelley as a love rival and for good reason. The woman has such mystique she was the subject of another string of flirtatious emails, this time from General John Allen, Petraeus’ replacement as leader of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan. When I say string I mean 20,000 to 30,000 pages of emails and documents containing “inappropriate communication”. We’ve all done desperate things to get laid, but it seems General Allen was particularly enthusiastic.

And so it was that the US intelligence complex was brought low by the forlorn yearnings of men with lots of medals on their chest.

As ever, the debate is split between the curtain twitching ranks of the tabloid press, which ends political careers for irrelevant indiscretions, and the nuanced views of those who think men and women should be able to be as catastrophic as they like in their personal time as long as it doesn’t interfere with their professional duties.

The latter view is more civilised and is becoming the consensus among educated adults. By educated I mean those people who do not actively try to retard their intellect by reading newspapers.

Unfortunately, the reality is much murkier, because Petraeus’ behaviour reveals the unspoken secret at the heart of politics: People are absurd.

Military commanders, like businessmen and politicians, dress their activities up in impressive-sounding jargon, but they can never escape this truth for long. Human life is chaotic and the most chaotic bit of it is sex. Our constitutional systems cannot prevent the turmoil overtaking them.

It is the second law of thermodynamics. Or if you prefer, it’s WB Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

None of which is as charming or concise as Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, when he observes: “You see, the tyrannosaur doesn’t obey any set patterns or park schedules. It’s the essence of chaos.”

My favourite example of this came during a photo feature of the Trident nuclear submarine in a Sunday newspaper several years ago. The command system was unimaginably complex. It had ten times as many knobs and buttons and screens and communication devices as any airplane cockpit. But attached flimsily on the side was an instruction written on a Post-It note, underlined twice. No matter how meticulous your system, chaos always finds a way to cock it up. And there is no more reliable, tried-and-tested way to cock things up than by getting a hard-on.

American politics, which is altogether more Saudi Arabian than people give it credit for, throws up particularly tragic examples.

In November 1995, a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky gave President Bill Clinton a blowjob. A report by puritan monstrosity Ken Starr would later reveal she pulled away at the last moment, forcing the leader of the free world to finish himself off in the sink.

On August 20th 1998, a day before Lewinsky was due to go before a grand jury, Clinton excluded all his military advisers from a room and agreed to launch a missile attack against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Just one person died in the strike, but in the months to come the Germany ambassador to Sudan estimated there were “several tens of thousands of deaths” of Sudanese civilians due to medicine shortage. The factory produced 90% of Sudan’s major pharmaceutical products and it was the only one to produce TB drugs, which protected infants from parasites passing from herd to herders in a predominantly pastoral economy. Thousands of children died from malaria, tuberculosis and other treatable diseases.

The Clinton administration said Operation Infinite Reach was necessary to destroy the production of the deadly nerve agent VX and, in a remarkable piece of timing, that there was only one ‘window’ in which to launch the strike – the day before Lewinsky’s testimony. Much later, officials admitted the evidence was “not as solid as first portrayed”. Sudan’s invitations for the US to conduct chemical tests at the site were rejected.

And so you can trace a line from a dying child in Sudan to the president beating himself off in a White House sink.

Political journalism stays away from the messy stuff because it’s too absurd. It tries, in this country at least, to draw a line between the act of indiscretion itself and the lies which inevitably follow from it. The lies serve to validate the press pack’s pursuit, together with our own prurient interest as readers.

There has consequently been an understandable backlash in a part of the commentariat against the resignation of Petraeus, who is seen by some as a man who was perfectly competent at his job. I’d question that assumption of competence, in that he presided over two morally and strategically disastrous wars, but that’s another matter. In a series of excellent articles, Wire creator David Simon swore off the puritanism of US press coverage and asked what would have happened to Winston Churchill if the modern media had caught sight of the fact he was obviously a functioning alcoholic of epic proportions.

Simon is right, but the distinction we wish to draw between sexual and personal indiscretions and the political system is an impossible one to maintain. One affects the other, as that dying in child in Sudan might have observed.

The French journalistic model, which is fiercely averse to covering sexual indiscretions, is also highly problematic. We don’t know how many political and constitutional scandals have escaped scrutiny as a result of the French press’ overly-deferential attitude to its leaders, but the hands-off approach to sexual predator Dominique Strauss-Kahn suggests they are probably legion.

The odd, useless chaos of human behaviour will always scupper politics. The trick is to be sufficiently mature to ignore acts of a personal nature but intrigued enough to assess whether they really are just of a personal nature. It’s an impossible balance, and one we are never likely to achieve. Petraeus’ cock is the ghost in the machine.