- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward didn’t go looking for the job of national security advisor. He was asked to consider taking it.
He didn’t particularly want the job. He is retired from the military, and his wife thought this was supposed to be the time in their lives when family finally took precedence over combat.
But Harward felt obliged to consider because he wants to help his country, no matter who the president is. He has buddies who are still in uniform. They can’t just walk away from the fight, even if they want to. For them, he felt obligated to them to try to make this work. Plus, Defense Secretary James Mattis was twisting his arm off, and Harward has a lot of respect and time for him.
But here’s the problem: Harward is a national security professional. In his conversations with White House officials this week, he began to fear that Trump didn’t understand what that phrase means — that is, someone who thinks rigorously about formulating and implementing foreign policy. Harward knows, as Trump does not, what it means to execute policy on the ground, and especially how difficult it can be to figure out how to implement ill-conceived strategy into an acceptable outcome. He has seen comrades bleed and die on orders he issued.
Partly because of such experiences, he understands that the job is far bigger than one person. To be done right, it requires a team. Harward is also a SEAL veteran, which means, among other things, that he is a team member. He wanted his own team, people he trusts, with experience and expertise. He didn’t just want to drive Trump’s clown car. One report said he wound up considering the job a “shit sandwich.”
In short, he was willing — if he could do the job right. Listening to Trump, he felt he couldn’t do it right. So he went all Johnny Paycheck on the president.
His balking is going to resonate in the military, especially in the Special Operations community. Harward is known and respected in Spec Ops, and the fact that he looked the president in the eye and found him wanting will give a lot of people pause. Trump hasn’t attacked the military as he has the intelligence people, but this could be the beginning of some wariness.
Meantime, Trump tweeted this morning that, “General Keith Kellogg, who I have known for a long time, is very much in play for NSA – as are three others.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump winds up picking an active duty general who can’t say no.
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