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A Spy in the House of Love


The Petraeus affair is threatening to blow the lid off human nature. Part of the reason it has become such a flashpoint, of course, is that the scandal implicates an ever expanding cast of characters and the unfolding story keeps taking many twists and turns. Trying to keep up with all the bizarre developments is likely to make your own head spin. While the media seems intent on characterising the Petraeus affair as a sex scandal, there a much broader implications. These include the media’s own hypocrisy in the scandal and its tendency to distract us from the real issues.


The mainstream media certainly knows its target audience. The reports couldn’t be more breathless or salacious: our delight in the sordid details is as transparent as our feigned outrage. We’ve all expressed shock—shock we say!—in the unseemly behaviour of male authority figures as we’ve also googled —and oogled —the two evil temptresses bringing them down. The male leads might be famous for defeating terrorists, but apparently they were no match for the biggest threat known to mankind: the femme fatale, or those weapons of mass destruction otherwise known as women with breasts and vaginas. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for sex scandals, and this sorry affair couldn’t be more appetising. It’s been the gift that keeps on giving: public officials have been caught with their pants down and shirts off! Given human nature, a media cover up is not likely to occur: the general public has a right to know other people’s private affairs.


According to the popular narrative, the Petraeus affair is a tale of infidelity that involves obsessive love and jealous lovers, cyber sex and stalking, and bankrupt social climbers entertaining the boys back home.


The reality tv or soap opera approach, however, downplays bigger concerns—such as the media’s inappropriate love affair with General Petraeus and turning a blind eye to the general pattern of abuse of power . Since the military ranks as the most admired institution in the US, it’s no wonder confidence in media institutions is at an all time low. Corporate media has played a major role in creating a cult of personality around General Petraeus —the former CIA Director even makes a guest appearance as Secretary of Defence in the latest Call of Duty. The fact that Petraeus got caught sleeping with his jealous biographer sums up the nature of the incestuous relationship: the media’s own blow jobs invariably resulted in a backlash.


Given the public’s general disdain for media institutions, we are required to ask: why was it so sucked in by the cult of personality? The answer appears to be self evident: the military is generally seen to uphold and defend the values of American culture. Men in uniform literally embody the American character via its codes of conduct and force of power. Perhaps the real scandal is that it took sex to throw Petraeus’ social position into question—and that traditional sexual roles have still made it possible to cast the main players into heroes and villains.


If General David Petraeus hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. And to some extent, the deification of King David was a media creation born out necessity. The cult that emerged around David Petraeus coincided with the US ‘liberation’ of Iraq, and his subsequent role in extricating US forces from a quagmire potentially worse than Vietnam. An embedded media anointed a saviour figure on a messianic mission to bring democracy to the Middle East and US soldiers safely back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus reportedly walked on water because he was able to weather the desert storm and provide all concerned parties with a dignified exit from political quicksand. Or so goes the official salvation narrative masquerading as objective news stories and biographical accounts.


Although this is obviously not the place to start rewriting the remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia, it’s worth quoting Petraeus’ own words about the importance of public appearances. He observed that perception is the key to success and “what policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters—more than what actually occurred”.


Petraeus resigned from the CIA because the self constructed hologram needed to be seen to do the right thing. He originally hoped, however, that the affair —and the circumstances leading to its discovery —would remain hidden from public view. Petereus had no intention of falling on his other sword, and was obliged to maintain the perception that American institutions stood for integrity and honour. It is important to see, however, why the Petereus affair is really a scandal—and why Petereus has gone into damage control since his forced resignation.


The issue isn’t so much that he got caught cheating on his wife: it’s the perception that he may have betrayed his country as a result. Setting aside the conspiracy theories regarding the suspicious timing of his resignation, the question is what may have actually occurred on his watch. In the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a violation that can result in a court-martial or demotion. Although the retired General is unlikely to be called out of retirement to be prosecuted, the illicit affair casts aspersions on his perceived legacy. As his former lover makes a point of documenting in her officially sanctioned biography, Petraeus’s claim to fame includes leading by example and speaking truth to power. This is why anonymous military sources have been telling the media that their secret affair occurred when he left the army and started working at the CIA. The question, of course, is how would anyone know when the affair really started if it was a closely guarded secret from the outset? Was their affair really an open secret, and if so, isn’t the chain of command only as strong as its weakest link?


The related issue is whether their secret relationship resulted in security violations as Petraeus was supposed to be leading by example in a top secret organisation. Classified documents were found on Broadwell’s home computer and this FBI discovery apparently does not bode well for his leadership. The question is whether the documents can be traced back to Petraeus’ position as head of CIA and/or raises concerns about what was shared during pillow talk. The Petraeus affair not only brought domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence agencies into conflict again, it highlighted the possibility that the US has become a surveillance state. If the Director of the CIA can’t even keep his own affairs private, what does this say about the state of the nation?


As if to illustrate the possible abuse of power—and Petraeus’ apparent tendency to blur the public and private sphere —witness his intervention in a custody case related to the other other woman (Jill Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam). General Petraeus— along with General Allen, Petraeus’ successor in Afghanistan—\ attempted to use their perceived moral authority to influence the outcome of Khawam’s nasty custody battle: they both provided glowing character references for a woman evidently lacking in character. While it’s admirable that the two Generals agreed to help the twin sister of a friend within their social circle, the court’s ruling indicated that the House of David had overstepped its bounds.


It proved to be a small world in the long run though. The suspected other woman also befriended an FBI agent within her social circle, inadvertently triggering the investigation uncovering Petraeus’ illicit affair. If Jill Kelley was an ordinary civilian—as opposed to an ‘honorary consul’ or ‘social liaison’—the email cat fight was unlikely to have resulted in an FBI enquiry. Serving appetisers to government officials obviously has its perks, but Kelley’s social circle invariably closed in on itself: it became a vicious circle revealing a house divided against itself and many people got caught in the crossfire. It just goes to show that women are more trouble than their worth and the men shouldn’t have trusted the crazy bitches in the first place.


Then again, perhaps Petraeus’ downfall was part of Jill Khawam Kelley’s cunny plan. Since there is nothing more potent than a mix of racism and sexism, Kelley’s Arabic background has since raised red flags in left wing and right wing circles. The self appointed Ambassador is now starting to be perceived as an undercover spy who infiltrated Central Command with a top secret mission: to set the cat amongst the pigeons.


Given what is at stake, however, it’s hardly surprising that battle lines have been drawn. The media is depicting Petraeus’ legacy as a war between the sexes, and his former lover is now being officially cast in the role of sworn enemy. The issue of military and security violations appears to come down to a case of ‘he said/she said’, and turns on the question of ‘reputation’. The scandal is that everyone had little problem in deploying a female spokesperson to sex up Petraeus’ image— and is now using Broadwell’s own sexuality as a weapon against her.


Spies Like Us


When Obama was re-elected for a second term, his victory was generally perceived as a win for America’s new normal. The re-election of a black President fulfilled the American promise of a more perfect union, and reminded everyone that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Obama’s victory allegedly spoke to (and for) a society trying to integrate itself by uniting the schisms of class, race and gender. As the creator of The Wire and Treme eloquently observed in Barack Obama and the Death of Normal, Obama’s win reflects a new social reality—that there are no real majorities anymore, only pluralities and coalitions. Consequently, Obama’s win will ideally.


“Move this country forward (and) make the intransigent American ruling class yield… the past to the inevitable future… the country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play—on a national level, at least—the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals” (David Simon, “Barack Obama and the Death of Normal”, 7 November, 2012)


While this is a noble sentiment, it unfortunately obscures a more troubling picture: the concern that America’s electoral college is undemocratic because it plays coalitions and pluralities against one another in order to create the illusion of a united states. The main criticism, of course, is that it is not based on the popular vote and so misrepresents the majority of people (the principle of one person one vote is marginalised in favour of states being valued disproportionally). The irony is that America’s electoral college remains a major concession to its troubled past: it was originally created to enhance the power of slaveowners via unequal state representation and realigning the power of each vote. Specifically, the electoral college “goes against basic democratic principles by making the vote of one citizen worth more than the vote of another, depending on the population of the state in which they reside and how close the race happens to be in that state”.


Flashpoints is not arguing against the electoral college per se—we’ll leave that heated debate to other people. It’s more raising the concern that it misrepresents the state of the union and/or encourages a false image of ‘the will of the people’. President Obama might have decisively won the electoral college (332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206), but the popular vote points to a more divided nation (Obama’s 62,611,250 to Romney’s 59,134,475). Obama’s narrow popular win throws into question the mandate given to him by 538 electors. Obama’a political mandate appears to be more self constructed hologram than social reality.


Witness the way America’s social divisions immediately became apparent in the election’s aftermath. Racism reared its ugly head in the form of hate speech directed at the President and post mortems lamenting the rise of urban voters. Equally telling, however, was the liberal gloating at the conservative defeat across the colour spectrum and the public shaming of sore losers. It’s the hate speech that especially concerns us—including the hateful responses to it.

Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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