The Oxford English Dictionary unveiled its word of the year last week, helpfully providing a succinct description of the scandal that has claimed Gen. David Petraeus' glittering career and appears to have only begun its cull. Omnishambles: "a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations."
Petraeus' Nov. 9 resignation as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency was a jolt that usually is the culmination of a public story, not its beginning. This one looks to be with us for a long time, sprinkling lessons and wonder as the spotlight shines in unexpected corners.
Sam Leith, clever columnist for London's Evening Standard, provided a reminder of the nature of adultery. "No amount of brass on the chest will quite hold your trousers up." Extramarital entanglements are as old as marriage, but Petraeus and his mistress, biographer Paula Broadwell, found ways to add new ingredients to the tawdry business.
News reports indicate Petraeus and Broadwell shared an email account and exchanged messages by filing them in the "drafts" box, rather them sending them to each other. This is a method of contact said to be favored by terrorists who need to avoid detection. Remember to double delete.
That the FBI would undertake some menacing emails over affairs of the heart was another surprise. Broadwell's abuse of Petraeus friend Jill Kelley, an attention-seeking socialite and faux diplomat, through emails may have ignited the growing imbroglio. I use "may have" because this story takes daily twists, rendering certainty an unobtainable destination. No turn in the story would test our capacity for surprise.
However it started, the ramifications will continue to flow. Gen. John Allen, Petraeus' successor in leading NATO troops in Afghanistan, insisted the 20,000 to 30,000 pages of emails he shared with Kelley are not evidence of an affair. Both Petraeus and Allen are friends of Kelley. Their names appear in the court file of Kelley's twin sister's tumultuous divorce, according to the New York Post. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., are also mentioned. This has a bad look to it on its own.
Even the French would raise their eyebrows over the implications of the Petraeus scandal. A furtive affair and its consequences must necessarily interfere with the CIA director attending to the intense demands of national security. If Petraeus' authority and attention were compromised during the Sept. 11 fatal assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, persuasive answers to questions surrounding the murder of four Americans by terrorists will prove elusive.
Petraeus will have to live with the private injuries that come with the betrayal of his loyal wife, Holly, who has endured the decades of sacrifices that an ambitious spouse's career require, especially in the military. The public consequences of Petraeus' recklessness may be borne by all of us. The preeminent bipartisan leader in American government is gone at a time when both parties needed his example of service. Petraeus is one of the era's few international military figures, admired for his ability to combine intellect with action.
His departure under unseemly circumstances will encourage our enemies. The Iranian mullahs are probably less worried about CIA interference in their exertions to create a nuclear weapon. The week's stream of revelations suggests chaos in the top tier of our military and intelligence service. Photos of FBI agents taking computers from Petraeus biographer Broadwell's house to recover classified documents add to the impression of heedless nature of the decorated general's judgment in his choice of a mistress.
The FBI investigating the head of the CIA must have ignited some interagency friction that won't be forgotten by Petraeus' allies and admirers. A rogue FBI agent — friend of Florida siren Kelley — is also unsettling. He's reported to have sent pictures of himself shirtless to Kelley and also tipped off a Republican congressional leader to the investigation. When do these people find time to do their assigned jobs?
America looks ridiculous. The president may have been kept in the dark about a serious breach of standards. Versions of events keep changing. Syrian opposition forces have lost an important and knowledgeable advocate with the fall of Petraeus. A voice protecting vulnerable Afghans, especially women, will not be heard during our extended withdrawal from that ravaged country.
From every angle, a mess.