Petraeus had been celebrated by hawks, in particular, for directing President George W. Bush’s 2007 “surge” in Iraq, which was credited, in part, with quelling sectarian violence in the country the U.S. invaded in a vain search for weapons of mass destruction.
The liberal antiwar group MoveOn.org, though, attacked Petraeus in 2007, calling him “General Betray Us” in a full-page ad in the New York Times and saying he had been “cooking the books for the White House” in order to exaggerate progress in the unpopular war.
That provoked a furious response from many in Washington, including then-presidential candidate John McCain, who called the MoveOn ad a “McCarthyite attack on an American patriot. … No matter where you stand on the war, we should all agree on the character and decency of this exceptional American."
McCain’s eventual opponent in the presidential race, Barack Obama, said through a spokesman that he didn’t question Petraeus’ “patriotism” but felt that the expansion of U.S. forces to more than 160,000 had not created the kind of stable government needed for long-term progress in Iraq.
That dispute became a significant theme in the Obama-McCain campaign.
Petraeus’ generally sterling reputation, back then, led to the accusations by MoveOn.org quickly being brushed aside. Some media outlets have shied away from expressing skepticism of Petraeus when he was still one of America’s top military commanders.
Many accounts of the scandal over his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell now describe how Petraeus aggressively managed his image, cultivating relationships with journalists at home and giving some of them wide access in the Mideast war zones.
Petraeus had also made a point to subordinates of the imperative for personal integrity. He told his proteges “that character was what you did when no one was watching,” according to an account in the Washington Post. “And he would always hasten to add, from his most public of perches, that ‘someone is always watching.’ ”