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Ex-Generals March Into Campaign 2016’s Political Wars

Trump's rise has retired generals and admirals playing politics — and weighing races of their own — in ways that haven't been seen in decades.


One of Washington’s best-known public figures is warning that politicians are spreading “toxic” anti-Muslim rhetoric that amounts to “blanket discrimination against people on the basis of their religion” — a seemingly clear, if unspoken, jab at Republican front-runner Donald Trump and his calls for banning Muslims from entering the United States and registering those already here.

The critique echoes similar attacks from Trump’s chief rival, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and other leading Democrats. But it didn’t come from Clinton or any of her allies. It instead came in a Washington Post op-ed by retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, arguably the most famous military figure of his generation.

Petraeus didn’t use Trump’s name in his piece, but no politician has used more inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims than the GOP front-runner. The comments highlight a significant, but little-discussed, new element of the 2016 presidential race: Prominent retired members of the military are stepping into the political arena — or being pulled into it — in ways not seen in decades.

Trump is the implicit target of many of the retired generals and admirals, whose public criticism echoes the private concerns of many still in uniform horrified by the businessman’s talk of torturing terror suspects, killing the families of militants, abandoning NATO, and encouraging allies to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Beyond the rhetoric, at least two retired senior officers, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, have held private meetings with political operatives looking to draft them into the 2016 race as candidates.

Mullen was the top vice presidential choice of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was briefly considering an independent campaign, and held multiple face-to-face meetings with the billionaire businessman. A former adviser to Mullen said the retired admiral seriously considered the idea and was formally vetted by Bloomberg aides but never agreed to join a Bloomberg-led ticket. In the end, Bloomberg elected not to run.

The other officer who has considered entering the race for the White House is Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until leaving the military in 2013. Earlier this year, Mattis held secret talks in a Washington hotel with several prominent members of the GOP establishment about mounting a third-party campaign against Trump, though he ultimately opted against throwing his hat into the ring.

More recently, Mattis raised eyebrows by publicly slamming President Barack Obama, the former general’s commander in chief during his final years in uniform. During a speech in Washington last month, Mattis blasted Obama for giving an interview that denigrated key U.S. allies. “For a sitting U.S. president to see our allies as freeloaders is nuts,” Mattis said during the April 22 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Generals and admirals have waded into presidential politics before, almost always controversially. One of the most high-profile instances came in the fall of 1992, when Adm. William Crowe, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly endorsed then-Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and defended him against accusations that he had dodged the draft. The move was heavily criticized at the time because Crowe had held his military post under Clinton’s opponent, then-President George H.W. Bush, before retiring in 1989. Clinton later named Crowe ambassador to the United Kingdom.

More recently, GOP leaders worked hard to persuade retired Army Gen. Colin Powell — whose public star turn during the first Gulf War made him one of the most famous military commanders in decades — to run against Clinton in 1996. Powell seriously considered it, but ultimately declined because of what he said was a lack of “passion and commitment” for politics. Powell served as George W. Bush’s first secretary of state before retiring from public service.

Worried that presidential campaign rhetoric could jeopardize the military’s political neutrality, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is preparing a memo reminding senior officers to stay out of the political arena and above partisan combat.

The memo, which has not yet been completed or distributed, will underscore the importance of the military remaining strictly apolitical. It will also stress “that we have a responsibility to share with the American people our perspective on important issues that affect the U.S. military, but not in direct response and be careful to not be inadvertently pitted against a political debate position,” said Dunford’s spokesman, Capt. Greg Hicks.

Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins who was a Defense and State Department official under both Bush presidents, said he believes Petraeus chose to write the op-ed because of his concerns about the dire national security implications of Trump’s rhetoric. In March, al-Shabab, the al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, released a recruitment video with a clip of the GOP front-runner talking about a “shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.

“Petraeus and Mattis are people who are very, very careful about being apolitical, about keeping out of these kinds of things,” Cohen said. “It really reflects the exceptional nature of the Trump candidacy — they wouldn’t be doing this if it were Ted Cruz, or certainly Jeb Bush or Rubio or Chris Christie.”

Whatever the motivation, Richard Kohn, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written extensively about civil-military relations, warned that the essay could undermine public trust in the military. Kohn derided the Petraeus op-ed as “really inappropriate” and “unhelpful.”

“What you are talking about here is a military intervention in politics,” Kohn said. “He’s using his career, his prominence, and his accomplishments to try to affect the course of the election.”

Petraeus told Foreign Policy that he wrote the op-ed because he “thought the sentiments in the piece needed to be voiced” and declined to comment on whether it was motivated specifically by Trump’s anti-Muslim language.

“No one asked me to do the piece,” he said. “I had just been increasingly concerned by the rhetoric used by political candidates in the U.S. and overseas. I have been reassured a bit by the recent softening and clarification of some of that rhetoric.”

Most of the political rhetoric remains as white-hot as ever, however, and senior officers are routinely feeling compelled to publicly rebut incendiary comments from Trump and other GOP presidential candidates.

Earlier this spring, for instance, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that carpet bombing “isn’t now, nor will it ever be” U.S. military strategy. Selva was responding to a question about a tactic Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had threatened to use against the Islamic State during a GOP presidential debate.

Trump’s calls to torture terror suspects and go after their families have forced top officers to walk a narrow line between publicly denouncing policies they see as illegal and avoiding getting entangled in a political debate.

During a February House Appropriations Committee hearing, Democratic Rep. Betty McCullom asked Dunford about both of Trump’s threats. Before the general could answer, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he feels “very strongly that our department needs to stand apart from the electoral season so I respectfully decline to answer any questions that arise from the political debate going on. I want Gen. Dunford, especially even more so than me, to not get involved in political debates.”

Dunford, for his part, said he “wouldn’t get into what Secretary Carter highlighted,” and instead gave a vague answer about how the military represents “the values of the American people.”

Trump’s criticism of NATO has also put some senior officers in a bind. During a March 30 news conference in Tampa, Florida, a Defense One reporter asked Carter and Dunford about something “we’ve heard from the campaign trail recently. … Is NATO very obsolete?”

Dunford offered a lengthy defense of the alliance and concluded by saying, “In my mind, the relevance of NATO is not at all in question.” A short time later, Defense One posted an article headlined “Trump’s Wrong on NATO, Says Joint Chiefs Chairman.”

At the behest of the Pentagon, Defense One and other outlets that recounted the exchange subsequently corrected their stories to reflect that the general wasn’t responding to the GOP politician directly.

American generals aren’t the only ones being pulled into the political fray. After Trump suggested earlier this year that he would consider using nuclear weapons against the Islamic State, the question was put to British Maj. Gen. Doug Chalmers at a Pentagon news conference.

“That’s a conversation, frankly, I’ve never heard discussed amongst any of our coalition members at any stage,” said a clearly surprised Chalmers, who is serving as the deputy commander of the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad. “I have to admit that one has taken me completely by surprise. The simple answer to that is no.”

Although many senior officers have been shocked and dismayed by Trump’s statements, it’s unclear how rank-and-file enlisted troops — and veterans no longer on active duty — view the candidate. One survey this month by the Military Times, which did not claim to be scientific and relied on voluntary responses from the paper’s subscribers, suggested 54 percent of active duty service members would back Trump over Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

For his part, Trump has repeatedly mocked the military, particularly in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, for failing to do what it takes to win. In March, he raised eyebrows — and drew the public criticism of many retired officers — when he said American soldiers are “afraid to fight” because of the Geneva Conventions. After saying he gets his military advice “from the shows,” the presumptive GOP nominee now says his administration would put top officers above foreign policy wonks when it comes to national security debates. Trump also says he’d consider military generals for cabinet and senior staff posts.

Still, he wouldn’t empower the generals too much. Earlier this month, Trump said that he’d bar them from doing television appearances or speaking with the “dishonest press” because they can’t be trusted to avoid spilling national security secrets or sharing plans with the enemy.  

A general should not be on television. … I will prohibit them,” Trump said in early May in Indiana.

“You think Gen. George Patton or Gen. Douglas MacArthur, do you think they’d be on television saying about how weak we are?” he continued. “They wouldn’t be on television because they’d be knocking the hell out of the enemy and they wouldn’t have time.”

Trump’s got that one wrong. Both Patton and MacArthur gave frequent interviews and speeches and enjoyed warm relationships with the reporters who wrote about them. They were also each known for saying impolitic things in public. In 1945, Patton stunned many in Washington by questioning the need for what he derided as “this de-Nazification thing” in post-World War II Germany. The gaffe wasn’t carried live on TV, but it effectively ended Patton’s military career.

Paul McLeary contributed to this article. 

Correction, May 20, 2016: On Thursday, the Washington Post updated a correction to an April 1 story to reflect that it had misattributed comments about NATO from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. A version of this article published Tuesday said that the Post had corrected its story at the urging of the Pentagon so it didn’t appear that Dunford’s comments had come in response to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

Photo credit: DAVID HUME KENNERLY/Getty Images

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