Pakistan's leaders can learn from David Petraeus' resignation
Aristotle, a Greek genius, penned down the elements of a tragedy and a tragic hero, two thousand years ago in his famous treatise “Poetics”.
He said that a tragic hero suffered a fall from grace due to the committal of a fatal mistake, whose consequences he was unable to foretell beforehand; and that the spectacle of his fall aroused pity and fear in the audience- pity was kindled from undeserved misfortune and fear from the realisation that misfortune could strike an ordinary mortal.
Recently, the world witnessed the fall of David Petraeus with unblinking wonderment. Petraeus, a former military officer and public official, served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) until his resignation.
Petraeus, a truly remarkable man in many respects was a four-star general; a soldier-scholar who formulated a successful military strategy; and, hitherto, a family man. And, suddenly, we hear him tendering his resignation on account of pursuing an extramarital relationship.
His fall, if seen in the backdrop of his dazzling career, no doubt, stirs pity and fear amongst people. Indeed, this reminds us of the charismatic Shakespearean generals, Othello and Macbeth- daring and dashing as they were.
His heady fall raises several questions but one in particular; did he need to resign after serving his nation extraordinarily for four decades?
Opinion is arrayed for and against on this question in the US. Some say he violated an unwritten code of his organisation; where agents are not supposed to get involved in extramarital affairs as it exposes them to blackmailing- putting confidential information at risk. But others are of the opinion that as the relationship did not lead to any security breaches, and neither did it break any laws, he should not have resigned.
However, like a samurai warrior, Petraeus opted for the honourable course; he humbly put an end to his own career. Interestingly, the Petraeus saga took place in a society where distinguished writers, poets, painters, athletes, singers, filmmakers and actors often engage in sexual misdemeanours, but their moral failings do not diminish the enthusiasm and appreciation from the public for their artistic flares and sporting talents.
As the step taken by the former head of the CIA does not reflect the general moorings of the society, what could his reason for tendering his resignation be?
A possible explanation is that the private lives of public officials in the US are not separated from their public lives. An American citizen’s private life is not intensely scrutinised or regulated by the state but once that citizen decides to enter a public domain, the private and public becomes intertwined, and they become accountable for private matters too.
David Petraeus’s resignation offers profound insights for the Pakistani society as well. A Pakistani citizen’s personal life is, however, intrusively regulated by the state, which could range from their dress code, to the consumption of alcohol and sexual conduct. But when the same Pakistani citizen becomes a public official, he can get away with all kinds of illegal personal offences using influence and contacts.
We rarely see politicians, bureaucrats or military officials offering regrets publicly on their moral frailties and, subsequently, tendering their resignations from public offices. This lack of accountability appears particularly galling as the powerful public officials of this country openly flout laws; those same laws that are brutally enforced on ordinary Pakistani citizens.
A young boy in Pakistan can go to jail for holding the hand of a girl in a park or for consuming alcohol openly, but not our public official. No, not them; they are above the law and morals.
Due to this dichotomy between public and private behaviour of public servants, the Hudood Laws, meant to regulate the conduct of Pakistanis in an Islamic way, are rendered meaningless, and, this meaninglessness creates space for the rhetoric as well as operations of rightist elements. The moral protestations from activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat-e-Ulema-e –Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) at the indiscretions of public officials, to hold government officials publicly accountable, not only sound convincing and plausible to certain people in our society but may also be a necessity.
Another casualty of lack of accountability of public servants on private matters is that the state cannot provide a moral compass to the nation and an absence of such could be the reason for the growing bewilderment, anxiety and angst witnessed in our society today.
So, as a Pakistani, I think there is a lesson that can be learnt by our public officials from David Petraeus’s resignation; self-accountability matters. Your job is not just to legislate or regulate private behaviour but to create a culture of accountability and openness for public servants; a culture that lets them take responsibility in a dignified manner for their own flaws and misdemeanours.
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