The Coast Guard commandant's viral video reminds us that senior military officers can speak out, carefully — and probably should do so more often.
On Wednesday, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard criticized the partial government shutdown in a video posted on social media. While addressed to his service’s uniformed and civilian members, Adm. Karl Schultz’s video quickly went viral, drawing public attention to the members of the Coast Guard who are continuing to work without pay — and to his implicit criticism of U.S. government leaders. One pundit called such an action by a uniformed officer “stunning.”
It definitely is rare to see this type of video, but is it inappropriate? And, is it harmful for civil-military relations for senior military officers to comment on a political issue like this one? I don’t think it is. In fact, uniformed officers can – and probably should – be more engaged in public than they have been over the last few years.
Although a number of retired general officers – including James Mattis, William McRaven, and Stanley McChrystal – have made headlines over the last few months, senior military leaders on active duty really haven’t been in the news too frequently. The current Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Joe Dunford, has kept a historically low media profile during his tenure. This discreet media presence may be due at least partly to Mattis’s own decision to hold few joint press conferences while defense secretary, but Gen. Dunford also seems to have actively avoided the press spotlight while focusing on building influence inside the Pentagon.
Related: The Shutdown and the Damage Done
However, there are signs this approach could change. Since being announced as Dunford’s prospective replacement, Gen. Mark Milley has been in the news on several occasions. While it is unclear exactly what approach Gen. Milley will take as Joint Chiefs chairman, there has been wide variation among his predecessors. Then-Gen. Martin Dempsey, for example, viewed himself as the “dash” in civil-military relations; he saw it as part of his job to bridge the civil-military gap and communicate publicly with elected leaders and the American public.
So which approach is right? Can active duty generals and admirals be more engaged in the public debate than they have been, and more importantly, should they? There is no definitive answer to these questions, but we can start by noting that civil-military norms certainly do not prohibit public engagement by senior military officers. There are significant risks in speaking out publicly, however, so they should choose carefully what topics to address and how to address them. Public engagement is an art, not a science.
The primary difference between Adm. Schultz’s viral video or Gen. Milley’s statements and McRaven’s op-ed or McChrystal’s recent interview about President Trump is that they had political implications, but they were not partisan and they did not single out particular elected leaders as either the object of their praise or focus of their ire. They also stayed mostly within the limits of their military expertise.
By both norm and statute, military leaders should not offer private advice or make public statements that are partisan or that attempt to influence electoral outcomes. Although active duty members of the military also fall under a strict set of regulations and statutory guidelines about their involvement in elections, the behavior of retired officers is largely guided by norms, many of which have come under attack over the last three decades as partisan polarization and confidence in the military have increased.
Although retired generals and admirals have the right to express personal opinions about political candidates, they also have responsibilities to those still in uniform and to the profession of arms. As confusion over “General, I mean Secretary” Mattis showed, the public does not often make a clear delineation between senior officers on active duty and those who have retired. Even when retired officers think they are speaking for only themselves, they aren’t.
When Peter Feaver, Kyle Dropp, and I examined the consequences of partisan endorsements by retired generals and admirals, we found that these endorsements ultimately are self-defeating. They have very little influence on political outcomes, but they do have an impact on public perceptions of the military as a partisan institution and they sometimes do undermine or skew public confidence in the military by making “co-partisans” more confident the military is on their side and opposition partisans concerned that the military is unfairly biased. These endorsements, and partisan behavior by members of the military in general, create perverse incentives for military officers, and undermine trust between civilian leaders and those on active duty.
Our research also found, however, that statements by generals focused on particular issues within their area of expertise—instead of candidates—can actually shift public opinion, and they can do so without causing negative effects for the military institution. Since Adm. Schultz and Gen. Milley stuck within their expertise and spoke about topics under their purview, their comments did not violate civil-military norms and instead helped contribute to a richer public discourse.
There still are real risks that political leaders will attempt to politicize military officers who speak publicly by using them as a shield from criticism or by creating the impression that the military is on their side. It also is possible that military officers sometimes will be biased or wrong, or that the lack of diversity – particularly among women and minorities – among the senior officer corps will skew their advice. And of course, the public and civilian leaders should bear in mind that military officers typically are focused only on one part of a problem. Nevertheless, addressing these longer-term issues shouldn’t prevent senior military officers from playing a thoughtful and constructive role in public discourse today.
The most appropriate way to get senior officers more involved in public discourse is for Congress to get more involved. Although the President is the commander in chief, military leaders have a constitutional responsibility to keep lawmakers informed. Congress also has the responsibility to fund, authorize, and oversee the military, and they can use more frequent Congressional hearings on military topics to bring military expertise into the public debate.
Such hearings also provide the benefit of allowing elected representatives to voice healthy skepticism and question military leaders, without extending undue deference. In this way, the recent change in party control in the House could have a big impact on civil-military relations this year, as representatives attempt to get senior military officers on the record on a number of important topics and oversight becomes more frequent and intense.
In addition to Congressional testimony, senior officers sometimes may feel the need to communicate publicly, either to reporters or in print. The current partisan climate means that significant risks will remain for any military officer attempting to do so. It is increasingly difficult to make non-partisan statements about political topics — or more precisely, to make statements that people perceive as non-partisan. Military advice is always given in a political context, and the political context in America is deeply polarized along partisan lines.
This problem will not go away anytime soon, regardless of who is president. As Michael Robinson’s research has shown, military leaders who are active on social media often gain partisan followings on Twitter, whether they intend to do so or not. Political leaders also have strong incentives to use the military for tactical political advantage. The risks of getting caught in the partisan crossfire are real, but so are the benefits of informed public discourse. Military leaders need to learn to adapt to a new environment, and some of them might even need to learn to tweet.
If senior military leaders do choose to engage in public, and I think they should, they will need to be selective about what they speak about and careful about how they do so. They always will be on the most solid ground when the discuss important issues within their area of expertise, and when they attempt to inform elected leaders and the public about the consequences and risks of a policy rather than trying to tell leaders what policy they should choose. In my view, this advice holds for both active and retired leaders.
The most important question senior leaders should ask themselves when deciding whether, how, and when to engage in public is how their public statements will impact trust – with the public, with elected leaders, and with those in uniform. Maintaining the trust of all those groups, or even the trust of different people within those groups, is never easy. Sometimes, it may be impossible to balance.
Some elected leaders or segments of the population simply will not listen to military officers who disagree with them, and some leaders will expect loyalty to themselves or to their preferred policies rather than seeking real expertise. There simply is not much that generals and admirals, whether they are still serving on active duty or retired, can do to mitigate those concerns. But military leaders can always attempt to act in a way that is worthy of trust. And, sometimes, doing so will involve sharing their views with elected leaders and the American public, just like Adm. Schultz did.
These views are those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or the United States Mission to NATO.