Don’t Box Retired Generals Out of Politics
Gen. Dempsey’s prescription would preclude valuable contributions toward an informed electorate.
General Marty Dempsey recently sent a clear and forceful message to his fellow retired generals and admirals: Keep your politics private. This position is not new for the former Joint Chiefs chairman; he has held these views for many years, articulating them while on active duty and now in retirement.
It is hard for those of us who have served as flag officers and are now retired to argue with General Dempsey, for many reasons. Not the least of these is the enormous respect and credibility that he has gained with us through the many years of his distinguished service. We do not exaggerate or off-handedly flatter him when we observe that he is one of the best in our cohort.
But in this instance he has overstated his case, and in so doing may have done a disservice to some of our peers who have contributions to make towards an informed electorate—and the voting public as a whole.
No doubt General Dempsey wrote his article in response to the actions of several generals or admirals who have recently and publicly voiced opinions about candidates, most notably two who had prominent speaking roles during the recent Republican and Democratic party conventions. His primary concern seems to be captured in this passage: “The image of generals and admirals that is held in esteem by the American people is the image of loyal, determined, selfless professionalism keeping watch for threats to our country from abroad. It’s not the image of angry speeches in front of partisan audiences intended to influence politics at home.”
Elsewhere, he states that as a result of senior retired military leaders’ participation in campaign activities, elected officials and the public at large “may now question whether senior military leaders can be trusted to provide honest, non-partisan advice on the issues and to execute the orders given to them with the effort necessary to accomplish them.”
Most of us probably would argue that certain recent appearances of and presentations by retired generals have fallen in the category of the type of partisan politics that General Dempsey had in mind when he was crafting his thoughts on his article — general attacks on the character of candidates, personal judgments about unsuitability for office, cheerleading for rowdy convention crowds, and the like.
But in condemning broadly a whole category of political activeness as choosing to “become part of the public political landscape,” does he preclude the valuable contributions that experienced former military and defense officials can make as we seek wise choices about the next commander-in-chief? Specifically, don’t we want to hear from retired senior officers who have worked directly for or with individual candidates about those qualities that will serve them—and us—well if they are elected and cast into the role of leader of the most powerful and complex military establishment in the world?
To be clear, retired military leaders who make charges against candidates based not on direct experience or knowledge of her or his qualities or attributes but on talking points provided by campaign staffs, or observations about suitability for office that refer to areas of interest or expertise that are completely beyond the ken of the officer making the statement are usually inappropriate. But doesn’t the average voter understand that a retired general or admiral is not the expert that one should listen to when trying to decide which candidate will be best for the U.S. economy or the health-care system? And don’t we think that voters want to hear from senior officials with years of experience about matters of national security and foreign policy?
Specifically, what was wrong with Gen. John Allen noting that, based on his personal experience working with her and his direct observations of her actions and decisions in tough situations, that one of the candidates has what it takes to ensure that the U.S. will continue to play a role as an “indispensable, transformational power in the world.” No doubt there are voters who are wondering about how a candidate will perform under pressure, how she will work with serving military leaders, whether she will listen to commanders on the ground and take their advice. They should be able to get the views of a well-respected retired military official who has reason to know the answers to those questions.
One other point: how far is General Dempsey willing to take his argument about what is proper for a general or admiral to do in retirement? Should retired senior officers refuse to serve in key appointive positions when asked by elected officials—as presidential envoys, advisers on tough national-security problems, special representatives, and the like—for fear that in doing so they will be viewed as political appointees and risk casting into suspicion the impartial best military judgement that they provided while on active duty? Or that of those whom they knew on active duty who are still serving? What about the 4-stars who take positions in the world of business and finance? Do we start wondering if they are in the pocket of Wall Street or the defense industry now and may have been unduly influenced while on active duty?
There is no question that we must preserve the principle that military advice must be given by serving flag officers “without political bias or personal agenda.” It is almost inconceivable that the outcome of any election could be so important that we would be willing to accept risk to that principle. But the observation that “generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life” cuts both ways. True, there are certain partisan activities that must be avoided because they risk creating a perception that is unhealthy to good civil-military relations and the trust that the American people have in their military leaders. But it is also true that retired generals and admirals have garnered the experience to be among the best judges of the qualities that it takes to command at the highest level. We should be able to hear from them in an appropriate fashion to help us decide who to support as the person to lead our military for the next four years.
NEXT STORY: Why So Many Foreign Fighters Flock to ISIS