Controversy Over Military Partisan Cheerleading Continues
Generals John Allen and Michael Flynn are in dangerous waters.
The issue I raised about retired senior military officers (GO-FOs, for General Officer-Flag Officers) serving as partisan cheerleaders at the U.S. Democratic and Republican national conventions has prompted a considerable amount of feedback and follow-up.
Most of it is positive and helpful, and the best example is the pithy letter to the editor retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey published in the Washington Post. See also his longer follow-up essay.
Dempsey wrote that Generals John Allen and Michael Flynn “just made the tasks of their successors … more complicated.”
And, as if on cue, Allen made it even worse the next day as he got drawn further down the partisan path. He followed up his convention speech with an interview on Meet the Press in which he was asked to respond to Republican nominee Donald Trump’s critisisms, and specifically his charge that Allen was a “failed general” and that the war against the Islamic State “got worse under [Allen’s] leadership.”
Allen’s response was breathtaking: “…he [Trump] has no credibility to criticize me or my record or anything that I have done. If he had spent a minute in the deserts of Afghanistan or in the deserts of Iraq I might listen to what he has to say. He’s got no credibility.”
Allen’s frustration is understandable, but it leads him into dangerous waters. The first iceberg he hits is an awkward irony: While it is true that Trump has not served in combat in Afghanistan or Iraq, neither has Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who Allen is championing. Nor, for that matter, has the current commander-in-chief. Why does lack of combat experience disqualify Trump but not Clinton and President Barack Obama? The second iceberg is that the U.S. Constitution is pretty clear on this point: Combat experience is not a requirement for becoming president. We expect presidents to judge whether a general is succeeding or failing, whether or not those presidents have “spent a minute in the desert.”
There were ample ways Allen could have rebutted Trump’s critique without running afoul of civil-military norms. He could have argued the facts about his generalship, the facts about the current state of progress, the facts about American interest in the Middle East, and so on. He eventually did so, but not before he reached for an argument that is toxic when deployed by senior military officers: the case that those who did not serve in combat are not in a position to judge a general’s effectiveness.
This is particularly poisonous for a reason to which Dempsey draws our attention: what such partisanship does to the active duty military officers. When Allen demonstrates that he thinks it is acceptable to dismiss criticism ab initio from civilians who have not served in combat, he is undermining the chain of command.
He is also complicating the jobs of those who have a professional obligation to prepare for the contingency of a transition to a Trump presidency, which some polls are saying is a real possibility. It remains the case that a Trump presidency is one of the highest likelihood contingencies against which the military must plan. It would be deeply corrosive to civil-military trust if the military concluded that, following Allen, it can plan to ignore not just unlawful orders but any policy judgment on national security whatsoever.
To be sure, Allen has had his defenders, though not particularly persuasive ones. The usually thoughtful Michael O’Hanlon argued that Allen (but apparently not Flynn, whom O’Hanlon does not mention) should be excused for speaking as a partisan advocate in the political convention because of the non sequitur that other generals in the past ran for president. As Dempsey has made clear elsewhere, he and almost every other person who speaks on this issue recognizes a meaningful distinction between running for office — and thus making oneself explicitly a partisan contender, and more importantly, accountable to the voters — and standing on the stage wrapped in the mantle of a non-partisan institution but deploying that garb for a partisan end.
After conflating these different roles, O’Hanlon goes on to offer some sensible guidelines for how military officers should speak in partisan settings. He says they should not “team up in a concerted way” and should not invoke their military credentials to “attack another.” Further, they should “voice their views with a degree of restraint and precision, avoiding sweeping arguments when it is possible to make their points in a professional and specific way,” he argues.
Not a bad (if incomplete) list. But O’Hanlon fails to notice that Allen, and to a certain extent, Flynn, violate those very guidelines. Allen and his group very definitely “teamed up in a concerted way;” heck, they mustered and marched out on stage to a military cadence. (By the way, I played that part of the episode to a large group of military officers and they visibly cringed. Some laughed. Whoever proposed that bit of stagecraft had a tin ear for things civil-military.) Allen explicitly and repeatedly invoked his military credentials and the credentials of those standing behind him to attack Trump (though, it must be said, Flynn’s speech was an order of magnitude more negative than Allen’s) and doubled down on the same in subsequent interviews. And of course, neither Flynn nor Allen’s speech was characterized by restraint and precision. Both were designed to stir the crowd up into a frenzy, and by that measure, succeeded in rousing the rabble.
Let me once again stipulate that both men have served the country ably and honorably while on active duty and both, I believe, are sincerely motivated by a conviction that these are desperate times that call for desperate measures. I do not think either is simply currying favor in the hopes of winning political spoils.
And along the way, both raise legitimate issues that are worth debating: the efficacy of our counter-Islamic State campaign and the role of Clinton in the policies that gave rise to the Islamic State; Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge the military’s obligation to resist unlawful orders; the importance of NATO and the credibility of our commitment to our allies; and so on. Had they raised the legitimate policy questions in a non-campaign setting, they would have gotten a pass. But they did not present a carefully caveated and carefully delimited military perspective on an important policy issue. Instead, they offered full-throated, partisan candidate endorsements and implied that to disagree with them on these partisan judgments would be to dishonor the military service of those on whose behalf they seemed to speak. That doesn’t stray across the line. That blows past it and amounts to a clear and present violation.
Eight additional points in response to objections sent to me in private:
Yes, this is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree. But let’s be clear that my position is not the extreme position of a crank academic (or at least not merely that!). It is also the explicit position of the last two Chairmen of the Joints Chiefs Staff, and, I believe, the implicit position of the two before that. It is also, I suspect, the view of the vast majority of active and retired four-stars and perhaps of all retired GO-FOs (but I am less sure of views held lower down the ranks).
No, we are not talking about whether the generals have a right to speak. Of course, they have the right to do so (as retired officers — folks in uniform actually do not enjoy the same First Amendment rights that those of us out of uniform enjoy). This is not about rights. It is about what is best for the military profession.
No, we are not talking about whether retired military have to stay silent on all policy matters. A useful rule of thumb by which to measure the weakness of another side’s argument is how quickly it skips your main point and substitutes an absurd argument you never made. By this measure, Flynn has an exceptionally weak argument, as he demonstrates here.
The people who are the most adamant that it doesn’t hurt are the pure politicos and those GO-FO’s who actually make public endorsements. Might they be biased?
Note that this is a pox on both houses argument, so it is one of those rare moments when partisans on both sides of the aisle might agree on something. In my experience, the policy people in both parties tend to be sympathetic to my view. The politicos understand it, but then make the totally valid point that they cannot afford to unilaterally disarm and they can’t trust the politicos in the other party. That is why I seek to persuade the retired GO-FO’s themselves, who can simply say no, as most now do.
Of course there is a continuum of risk here. While we might agree on a squishy generalized norm against this, we can also agree that we would apply it more stringently in cases of greater risk. The engine that slides us up the scale of risk is pretty clear: (a) the more senior the GO-FO, (b) the more recent the GO-FO’s active duty service, (c) the more partisan the setting (e.g. convention speech versus side-bar comment in a policy discussion), and (d) the actual content of the endorsement (careful parsing of policy arguments versus the strident bombast in which Flynn and Allen engaged). By that calculus, Flynn and Allen’s cases are pretty egregious.
Regardless of whether you think I exaggerate the risk, I don’t think there is a reasonable defense of Allen’s call to the active duty force to join him in this mission. That crosses a bright shiny line. So bright and so shiny that I couldn’t shake the thought that he garbled the words when reading them off a teleprompter. And so he did.
His prepared remarks put it: “Every American, in uniform or out [emphasis mine], in the White House or at home, must be a force for unity in America, for a vision that includes all of us….” As delivered, it was: “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….”
Even as written, it is not a good line for a general to deliver and I am a bit surprised that a buttoned-down organization like Clinton’s cleared it. As delivered, it sounds even more like a call for the active duty force to join in the political campaign.
At a minimum, Allen should undo the damage by making it clear in subsequent interviews that he is not calling on the active duty force to join him, and on the contrary, he is calling on the active duty force to serve professionally whomever the voters elect to be their commander-in-chief.
Yes, I totally understand that this election feels different, and the view that now if ever is a time to bend the rules. I have indulged in some trivial exceptions to standard practice myself, such as speaking out repeatedly against my own party’s nominee.
I think this year is different, even though the people saying so have said so every four years. Every four years, Democrats claim that while they might be able to tolerate the kinds of candidates the Republicans nominated in the past, this year (replace 2016 with 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992, 1988, and so on ad infinitum) the stakes are too high and the candidate the Republicans chose too extreme. Somehow, ancient Republicans get rehabilitated with age — thus the spectacle of the Clintons speaking favorably about Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in 2016 when they demonized those Republican worthies in 1992.
I think this is different, even though the Democrats are not treating it as different by running on a true national unity platform. As Ross Douthat has argued, the Democrats are paying lip service to the language of national unity to peel off Republicans disgusted with Trump, but they are not making the policy concessions that a party would make if it truly believed this was a supreme emergency that required all hands on deck. Instead, the Democrats are behaving as if they view this as a supreme emergency in the way that every crisis is an opportunity for them to lock in political gains — precisely Obama’s approach to the financial crisis.
Despite all of that, I do think this election is different. But “different” does not mean that anything goes. “Different” does not mean that military partisanship’s toll on democratic civil-military relations can be ignored. Where would those who think this is a supreme emergency, in which civil-military fouls can be winked at, draw the line? How dangerous to the Republic is the opposing candidate? So dangerous that you would stop only at — what?
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