Like many retired and serving military officers and national security professionals as well as senior Republican senators, I believe that President Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision was a mistake. However, the public outcry from some serving soldiers is unsettling as were the partisan cries for the president’s ouster from recently retired general and flag officers. The concept of civilian control of the military is one of the most sacred traditions in the American body politic, and recent events are disturbing.
Serving professional officers are expected to carry out the orders of their civilian masters even if their advice is ignored. If they believe that the order is illegal, immoral, or will lead to disaster; they are obligated to resign their commissions as a signal of their disapproval. An op-ed or CNN interview is not in that mix. What James Mattis did as secretary of Defense is the right way. Although in a civilian capacity at the time, he acted as a professional soldier should. His resignation letter spoke volumes and apparently caused a temporary reconsideration of a Syrian withdrawal. That’s the way the game should be played.
Recently-retired senior officers who engage in partisan politics are another matter entirely. The sight of former Gen. Mike (lock her up) Flynn campaigning for candidate Trump and Gen. John Allen stumping for Hillary Clinton should have been disturbing for all retired professional military men and women. Had they been out of uniform for years and established their chops in politics or business, aligning themselves with a candidate or running themselves might well be acceptable. But — having retired recently — they were lending the weight of their recent military positions to partisan political pandering. This is not currently illegal, but it should be.
I would favor legislation that would prohibit senior military officers from political campaigning or running for office for four years after retirement. Similar laws are on the books preventing officers and civilians involved in procurement decisions from working for civilian firms involved in making bids in areas in which those persons had been involved. That cooling off period makes good sense in politics as well. Unlike the civilian world, military retirement is a retainer rather than a pension. Retired officers are subject to recall at any time if the needs of the nation or service dictate.
We are not talking about all military personnel here. People who have recently completed an honorable enlistment in the armed forces or officers who served their obligated payback for military academy or ROTC education are excellent candidates for elective office or any type of political activity. Their leadership skills and patriotism would be a welcome addition to either political party. Retired flag level officers are an entirely different matter.
Nor should recently retired officers be prevented from doing commentary on purely military and strategic matters well within their area of expertise. The public benefits when Generals David Petraeus or Jack Keane write an op-ed or explain a complex situation in a TV interview. Nor should a retired general be prohibited from responding to personnel attacks. Gen. Mattis was well within his rights to respond when Mr. Trump called him an overrated general and compared him to Meryl Steep considered by the president to be an overrated actress. The humorous quip by Gen. Mattis in reply was both appropriate and humorous. It did not attack Mr. Trump.
Likewise, federal elected officials who join the reserves as relatively junior officers and stay in the reserves while in office should be allowed to continue to serve as long as they don’t campaign wearing the uniform. Their service helps to inspire reserve recruiting, and their expertise serves the respective services that they belong to well.
When I retired from active duty nearly two decades ago, I did not have the general expertise to effectively comment on purely political matters. I didn’t realize it then because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. After having some experience in business, the diplomatic world and academia, I feel more comfortable offering holistic comment. However, there were some hard lessons along the way.
At this point, we are nowhere near a “Seven Days in May” scenario, where the elements in the military attempt to stage a coup. But we have reached a point where some senior retired or soon-to-be-retired senior officers have become entirely too comfortable dabbling in partisan politics. There is a fine line between a man on horseback and a horse’s ass. We need a firewall to ensure that line isn’t crossed.
• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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