Petraeus isn't an absurd choice. Generals, even disgraced former ones, do a lot of work that is or approaches diplomacy. And to be honest, we are always a little worried by the way Secretaries of State seem hawkish by comparison to their peers at Defense; a military professional might bring a better sense of why the big stick is a dangerous negotiating tool.
But let's get back to those key words "former" and "disgraced," because they are highly relevant. Lest anyone forget, Bloomberg News reminds us that Petraeus
... left government under a cloud for sharing classified documents during an extramarital affair....These are grave offenses, and they are not in dispute. Although Trump the campaigner made it sound as though Petraeus had done little by comparison to the putative security breaches of Secretary Clinton, a more objective conclusion is just the reverse. FBI Director James Comey, no friend to Clinton, described Petraeus as prosecutable where Clinton was not:
Comey, who oversaw both the Petraeus and Clinton investigations [said in] a July 7 hearing, he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Petraeus’s behavior was worse than Clinton’s, saying that he deliberately “lied” when first questioned by investigators.Well. That says a great deal. "No reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Clinton, where Petraeus committed precisely the sort of crimes that should have been prosecuted. (Petraeus copped a plea and, as Bloomberg notes, would be the rare Cabinet member to serve the President while still on probation.)
Moreover, there is the adultery question. Like Trump and his cronies Giuliani and Gingrich, Petraeus has betrayed his marriage vows. As we pointed out at the time, this alone is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and not without good reason. An adulterer makes himself (or herself) susceptible to influence and blackmail. Had the general's paramour been a foreign agent, agent, the classified information he revealed to her might well have led directly to the death of American soldiers, or a compromise of American interests.
This is not, to say the least, a stirring recommendation for a top diplomat.
Now, here is the thing. People inclined to dismiss adultery as Giuliani has -- "everybody does it," and to privatize it by saying "I confess that to my priest" -- don't see the Petraeus case as anything especially grave. That is because they fail to grasp the central point of Christian moral philosophy, which is that we do not exist merely as individuals, but as a community. One person's sin does not merely harm himself and his relationship to God, but harms all of society. This is true even of occult sins, but more demonstrably so of gross public ones.
The early penitential tradition was far more concerned with the latter than with the former; our earliest records indicate a very public process of confession before, dismissal from, and restoration to, the Christian community. Well into the Middle Ages (and beyond), Church leaders distinguished themselves for holding political figures accountable to the community for their moral lapses. Think of Ambrose demanding penance from Theodosius or, with a bit more moral ambiguity but no less drama, the German king standing prayerfully in the snow at Canossa.
Let's not push the moral point too far. Petraeus is not asking to be admitted to Holy Communion; he is asking for another government job. The question before Mr. Trump, and the rest of us, is not whether Petraeus is repentant, but whether he is competent. We have little doubt that Petraeus is intellectually competent -- he is by most reports brilliant. But competence extends to more than mere intellect. A figure who, when trusted with enormously high office, has criminally abused the public trust in ways that have exposed himself to potential blackmail and those under his command to far worse is not, by our old-fashioned way of thinking, a great candidate for still-higher office.
But that line of reasoning only makes sense if you understand just why adultery is bad, and we are not convinced that Mr. Trump, or many of those around him, do understand this.