No Country for Old Generals
The post-9/11 wars haven’t produced many war heroes. And that’s bad news for Republicans hoping a retired general can save them this fall.
A handful of Republican activists are waging a long-shot campaign to persuade retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to run for president and save the GOP from potential electoral disaster this fall.
On paper, they seem to have a strong argument. GOP front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are deeply unpopular with broad swaths of the voting public. Retired generals like Mattis, by contrast, convey an aura of competence and courage, inspiring confidence that they will keep the country safe in dangerous times. With no record in elected office, former generals have no political baggage to alienate voters, and they are associated with one of the few American institutions that still enjoys wide public support.
But there has been no indication that the Republican leadership — or the country at large — is clamoring for a general to step into the race. There is also no sign that the 65-year-old Mattis wants the job or has the patience to enter the polarized and increasingly nasty political arena.
Even if he or another former general decided to run, the nature of the wars waged since 9/11 all but rule out the possibility of a “white knight” military hero transforming the presidential race and ultimately winning the nation’s highest office. The campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria over the past 15 years have produced ambiguous outcomes while offering no clear victories. That means the country has no transcendent war hero on a par with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last general to hang up his uniform and win the White House — more than 60 years ago.
“It takes a certain kind of war to make a general a president,” said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, former senior White House official, and Foreign Policy contributor. “You’ve got to have a decisive victory.”
Since the Civil War, only two professional U.S. soldiers have made it to the White House: Eisenhower, who was elected in 1952, and Ulysses S. Grant, who won in 1868. Several others have tried and failed; some ran as unsuccessful vice presidential candidates; and a few have flirted with the idea but bowed out.
Both Grant and Eisenhower were indisputable war heroes in the public’s imagination, household names praised for leading their armies to glory during wars that posed direct existential threats to the United States. The Civil War and World War II mobilized and galvanized every segment of American society, with practically every citizen fighting or having a relative, friend, or neighbor who was involved.
“Stop and think about the importance of those wars and the way in which they captured the attention and dominated the domestic life in the United States. And we don’t have that anymore,” said Richard Kohn, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has written extensively about civil-military relations.
Since World War II, the United States has fought limited wars “with indeterminate results and no closure,” Kohn told FP.
Few Americans could name one of the 14 commanders who have overseen U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 15 years, and fewer still could name any battlefield successes they may have achieved.
The one officer who gained a degree of notoriety was Gen. David Petraeus, who led the troop surge in Iraq and gained a revered status among Republicans. But Petraeus’s image was tarnished by scandal after he left the military. He was forced to resign as CIA director over an affair with his biographer and confessed to handing over classified information to his mistress and lying about it to the FBI.
Petraeus arguably has the right combination of skills and ambition to make the transition to presidential politics, “but he’s damaged goods,” Kohn said. “He’s been disgraced in a certain fashion.”
The last time a former commander had a reasonable chance to win the White House was in the 1990s, when the Republicans, casting about for a candidate to beat incumbent Bill Clinton, saw retired Gen. Colin Powell as another Eisenhower because of the fame he gained as the public face of the 1991 Gulf War. An African-American whose compelling life story included learning Yiddish while working at a Jewish-owned store in New York, Powell was charismatic and gave off an air of cool confidence.
The prospect of a Powell candidacy struck fear in the Clinton White House. But after exploring the possibility and sparking months of feverish speculation, Powell announced at a news conference in November 1995 that he would not stand as a candidate because he lacked “a commitment and a passion to run the race and succeed in the quest.” He later served as secretary of state in George W. Bush’s first term.
The last flag officer to appear on a presidential ticket was retired Navy Adm. James Stockdale, the vice presidential running mate for third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992. Stockdale had spent more than seven excruciating years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but his debate performance became the subject of endless ridicule. The admiral began the debate by asking: “Who am I? Why am I here?” sounding, unfortunately, like he didn’t know the answer himself. Then Stockdale had to ask the moderator to repeat a question because, “I didn’t have my hearing aid turned on.”
The last soldier to put himself up as a presidential candidate was Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander who oversaw the 1999 U.S.-led air war in Kosovo. That operation didn’t resonate as a triumph with American voters, and Clark’s 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination as a battle-tested wartime leader went nowhere. Four years ago, the former supreme allied commander ended up as a host for a reality TV show, Stars Earn Stripes, since cancelled, in which bygone professional wrestlers and other second-tier celebrities take part in contests supposedly based on real military or police drills.
The rumor about Mattis, which appears to be based mainly on a single commentary by John Noonan, the former national security advisor to failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush, speaks volumes about the growing anxiety among many Republican activists that the party could face a major defeat in November if either Trump or Cruz wins the nomination.
In Mattis, supporters see an articulate, well-educated leader who can segue from citing Homer and Sun Tzu to cursing like a young rifleman. He led his Marines into the battle of Fallujah in 2004 and a cottage industry has sprung up around his earthy sayings about warfare that would fit perfectly in a movie script. His advice to Marines going into battle was: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” As the head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, he bucked President Barack Obama’s administration by arguing for a tougher stance on Iran than the White House wanted. His stance cut his time at the command short.
“Trump’s faux-tough guy act would crumble when met with an actual warrior, and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy chops would seem like an 100-level International Relations course next to Mattis’s experience and expertise,” Noonan wrote.
But few generals today have the stomach for America’s political blood sport, said Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“I think many generals would like to be promoted to be the next president, but not many want to go through the process of running,” Cohen told FP. Campaigning for president contains a lot of “innuendo and abuse in which they are in no mood to tolerate after a long and successful military career.”
Some of the stilted rituals and round-the-clock scrutiny of the campaign trail — like adopting a facade of false modesty, making small talk in diners while cameras roll, being challenged in public debates — do not come naturally to most military officers.
It’s difficult to imagine Mattis, whose fellow Marines call him the “warrior monk” or just “mad dog,” reining in his penchant for profanity or having to shamelessly engage in self-promotion.
“He doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who wishes to spend large amounts of time raising money, pandering to the population, dealing with the kind of personal, demeaning savage combat that seems to be involved in presidential campaigns today,” Kohn said.
Some current military commanders have found themselves reluctantly drawn into the 2016 campaign debate when reporters asked them to respond to some of the overblown rhetoric — including Trump’s advocacy of torture and Cruz’s references to “carpet bombing.” The heated atmosphere has led the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, to draft a memo warning senior officers to stay out of the political fights of the campaign season, Capt. Greg Hicks, Dunford’s spokesman, said.
The memo, which is still being prepared, will say “that we have to remain apolitical to protect the confidence and trust the American people and our elected leadership have in the military,” Hicks told FP.
Apart from Mattis, the names of a few other recently retired military officers have popped up as potential saviors for the GOP in Washington’s latest parlor game. Some of the officers, however, are known to lean more toward the Democratic Party. The names include the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush and Obama, Adm. Mike Mullen; Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who ran the war in Afghanistan before being forced out for some impolitic criticism of the White House in a magazine article; and Petraeus. None of them has expressed an interest in running for elected office, though former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly considered Mullen as a potential running mate in a possible third-party candidacy. In the end, the billionaire decided against making a bid.
Along with Eisenhower, another commander from World War II — Gen. Douglas MacArthur — was courted repeatedly by the Republican Party as a presidential candidate, even when he was still in uniform. His insubordination during the Korean War led his commander in chief, Harry Truman, to sack the popular general. MacArthur returned to America greeted by huge crowds, but in the end the GOP chose the less controversial Eisenhower as its nominee.
The Mattis “boomlet” has its origins not in a political grassroots effort but a joke, posted on Facebook in 2012 as an expression of affection from Marines for one of their favorite leaders. It spawned a wave of tweets, #Mattisisms, as well as fake presidential campaign posters featuring the general, including one that read: “I Once Caught Ebola But Then I Let It Go.”
Even all that pales in comparison to the kind of public commendation once reserved for the nation’s captains of war.
Just months off the battlefield, in June 1865, Ulysses S. Grant made an appearance before a rowdy assembly of thousands at Cooper Union in New York. Forced by the crowd to give an impromptu speech, he was met with a wave of adulation captured by the florid prose of a New York Times writer. “As one man the people rose; the men swung their hats, clapped their hands, and shouted themselves red in the face; the ladies waved their handkerchiefs,” the Times wrote. “The hall was too densely crowded to permit of the turning of somersaults, but from head to foot, from limb to limb, the entranced and bewildered multitude trembled with extraordinary delight.”
It’s hard to imagine an appearance by one of today’s generals getting that kind of reaction.
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