David Petraeus occupies a crucial crossroads. This does not refer to the global media glare now seeking to dissect every aspect of his private life.
Congressional scrutiny now joins the media mayhem. The circus can be expected to continue for some time, laced with political sanctimony and self-righteousness by both the political and scribbling classes.
The end of the presidential campaign season has brought no cease-fire between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Starting at the top, President Barack Obama and party leaders in both the Senate and House have wasted no time in returning to rancor, finger-pointing and fierce passing of the buck.
Meanwhile, complex defense and national security challenges press for action, but with little likelihood so far of serious attention as the new Congress opens. Looming sequestration of federal funds will mean draconian cuts across the board, including at the Pentagon, one of the largest recipients of the federal budget.
Petraeus' career spans the crossroads of civilian and military sectors, including top commands in Afghanistan, Iraq and U.S. Central Command. He spearheaded the successful strategic shift in Iraq that averted defeat and permitted orderly withdrawal from that chaotic country.
Within the military, Petraeus intersects conventional and special unconventional operations. The Army's Special Forces date from the earliest years of the Cold War.
During the 1952 presidential campaign, Republican Party leaders promised to "liberate" Eastern Europe from the occupying Red Army. After the landslide election of the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, new Army special operations units were formed.
However, Eisenhower quickly locked up Special Forces in favor of the conventional military, while reconfirming containment. In the new nuclear-tipped Cold War, Ike did not trust unpredictable special ops types.
The military overall was operationally restricted. Sensitive missions were run out of the White House, in secret and apparently with great effectiveness.
The posture changed markedly with the Kennedy administration. The Army's Green Berets assumed stage center, the Navy SEALs were formed in 1962, and the White House became visibly involved.
As the Vietnam War escalated, large-scale conventional military operations came to dominate the American effort. One legacy was intense conflict between the CIA and military intelligence.
The CIA was consistently skeptical about U.S. military effectiveness. At one point, U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland ordered his officers not to deal with the CIA. Finally Congress passed legislation requiring such communication. After Vietnam, the Army generally emphasized conventional warfare, until 9/11.
Given this legacy, Petraeus was an especially important CIA head. He played a leading role in updating U.S. military doctrine on fighting insurgencies, and co-authored an important manual on counterinsurgency tactics.
Some complained about choosing a military officer to head the CIA, but the first four directors of the agency were senior military professionals: Rear Adm. Sidney Souers, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, Vice Adm. Roscoe Hillenkoetter and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith.
The sudden resignation of Petraeus is enormously disruptive to efforts to coordinate and integrate U.S. intelligence agencies, a mission underscored by the U.S. government in the aftermath of 9/11, but almost completely ignored in the current obsessive focus on sexual gossip.
Obama quickly accepted Petraeus' resignation as CIA director. He should follow that up by insisting this remarkable soldier continue to advise on national security.
Re-election to the White House permits the freedom to be presidential.
(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.)