Shadow Government

We Don’t Need Generals to Become Cheerleaders at Political Conventions

Retired senior military officers should not let political parties trade on their service in uniform by becoming high-profile partisan endorsers of presidential candidates.

Retired general Michael Flynn addresses to delegates on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Republican Party opened its national convention, kicking off a four-day political jamboree that will anoint billionaire Donald Trump as its presidential nominee.  / AFP / Robyn BECK        (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Retired general Michael Flynn addresses to delegates on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Republican Party opened its national convention, kicking off a four-day political jamboree that will anoint billionaire Donald Trump as its presidential nominee. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Retired senior military officers should not let political parties trade on their service in uniform by becoming high-profile partisan endorsers of presidential candidates.

For the past several decades, my tribe of specialists in civil-military relations has been debating this norm — whether it really should be a norm, why it is being challenged, and what can be done to strengthen it. I have laid out my view on this in a Center for a New American Security report (co-authored with James Golby and Kyle Dropp) and elsewhere.

The argument is quite simple. Of course, retired senior military figures enjoy the rights of any citizen. They have a right to run for office, a right to vote, a right to be politically active, a right to hold views and to opine on policy. But they also have special responsibilities that derive from the fact that they enjoy the special privileges that come with their rank while on active duty — privileges, and thus responsibilities, that extend even into retirement. It is telling that we have a strong custom in our country of referring to retired generals and admirals by their rank, even long after they have left uniformed service — their first name, even in retirement, continues to be general or admiral.

As such, when they speak as “retired General So-and-So” they appear to be speaking for the military. They are cloaking themselves in the extraordinarily high degree of respect that the American public accords to the uniformed military. However, a crucial pillar of that respect is the belief that the military self-consciously and purposefully stands outside of partisan politics. The military pledges to uphold the Constitution and obey the constitutional chain of command, to follow legal orders regardless of who is at the top of that chain. The public holds in low esteem those public institutions that are unavoidably in the middle of partisan fights — such as Congress — or those that are supposed to stand above partisanship but in fact appear not to — such as the media, or in recent years, the Supreme Court. The very act of wading into partisan politics while also pretending to be above partisan politics politicizes the military and risks undermining public confidence in this vital institution.

It is different if a retired military figure actually runs for political office, as Generals Washington, Jackson, Grant, and Eisenhower did successfully (and countless other veterans of lower rank have done at all levels of political ambition). When you stand for office you officially cross over and become a politician — you are viewed as a partisan politician and thenceforth can only speak as a partisan. Likewise, it is different if you are only opining on policy — we should do more (or less) in the fight against the Islamic State, we should buy or not buy this weapon system, and so on.

What is corrosive is claiming that the authority that comes from nonpartisan military service but then deploying that authority in pursuit of a quintessentially partisan mission — electing one candidate over another. Every time a senior retired military officer makes a high-profile political endorsement, it has an impact on junior officers still serving in uniform, and it chips away at the outside-partisan-politics norm. Such political endorsements contribute to toxic civil-military relations. They encourage political leaders to view the military as an interest group to be mobilized and professional military advice as one more partisan voice to be spun.

Those of us who believe that partisan endorsements by prominent retired general and flag officers corrode healthy civil-military relations have seen some progress over the past several years. Of course, this progress came after two decades of a steady retreat on the issue that can be traced to retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral William Crowe’s striking endorsement of then-Governor Bill Clinton at the height of the 1992 presidential campaign. Every campaign cycle afterwards has seen an escalation of the arms race as campaigns competed to produce a longer and more lustrous list of retired military endorsers.

But precisely because of that growing partisanship, there was an important — and, I thought, effective — countermovement. First then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and next then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marty Dempsey spoke compellingly and repeatedly about their opposition to the practice. Similarly, there were efforts among the retired four-star community to encourage each other to resist the inevitable appeals from political campaigns to offer such endorsements.

I fear the last two weeks have undone a good deal of that progress and I fear we might be about to plunge into a vicious tit for tat of partisan activity by retired general officers that will strain the already-tense civil-military relationship and could draft the active ranks deeper into the political fray.

First there was retired Lt. General Mike Flynn’s rambling but bitterly partisan speech at the Republican National Convention last week in Cleveland. As political rhetoric goes, I do not think it was particularly effective. It seemed to have its biggest impact in the way it upended plans to showcase Senator Joni Ernst, a rising star in the Republican party (and herself, prominently, a military veteran). Within days, Flynn’s message was further undermined as he was forced on the defensive for retweeting an anti-Semitic message. Even so, his speech was deeply disturbing and repeatedly crossed important professional ethical lines in its attacks on Clinton — none more egregious than when he encouraged the crowd to chant “lock her up,” a taunt connected to Clinton’s controversial email practices.

As corrosive as Flynn’s speech was, it, like the rest of the convention, had the feel of disorganized improvisation, which undercut its impact. And even though there were the inevitable military images and other attempts to wrap the candidate in the Commander-in-Chief mantle, compared to previous Republican conventions, Trump’s convention lacked the military luster we had come to expect (and lament) in these affairs.

Alas, it was the Democratic Convention’s part to show us how to do military demagoguery at its slickest. Retired General John Allen’s speech on the most important night of the DNC in Philadelphia was not a shining moment in American civil-military relations. From the cringe-worthy faux cadence march out on to stage, to the awkward chants of “USA,” to the shouted delivery — all of it reflected an explicit rejection of the idea that the military should stand above and apart from partisan politics.

For my money, the absolute lowest point was when Allen explicitly called on the active uniformed military to join in the political campaign: “Every American in uniform, in the White House or at home…. USA! USA! … we must be a force for unity in America, for a vision that includes all of us, all of us….” It is hard to craft a more politicized call for the military to join in partisan politics than that. And it is hard to find a bigger stage from which to make such a disturbing appeal than just before the candidate accepts her nomination.

Let me be clear, the substantive issues raised by both Flynn and Allen are legitimate issues to debate. Flynn is right that Clinton has not provided an adequate explanation of how President Barack Obama’s policies have fallen short and how she would do better. And Allen is right that Trump’s divisive approach to national security risks undermining American interests at home and abroad.

There are ample voices in the public square weighing in on these and countless other legitimate political debates. The voice we do not need to hear more loudly is the military one.

Let’s also not overstate the problem. During this campaign season so far, the combined lists of military endorsements are not as impressive in length and star power as were those in previous cycles. Trump’s biggest catch was just a three-star, and Clinton’s list so far is much less impressive than the one her husband mustered in 1992. The reform efforts of recent years may be helping slow the arms race.

But we should not be complacent. The best way to protect the norm is to call fouls when they happen.

Generals Flynn and Allen served the country well in uniform, and both have made important contributions to the policy debate since retiring. But by heeding the siren call of partisan endorsements, and by doing so in such glaring ways, they have done damage to the norm of a non-partisan military that has served our country well.

I am sure they did not intend to damage the military institution or the country they clearly love. I am confident they believe these are extraordinary times that warrant extraordinary measures. But they erred, and now there is important repair work to be done.

Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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