Should generals, admirals and intelligence officers engage in politics? Perhaps, but they should do so when it is their duty to do so.
The last national election featured dozens of retired senior officers supporting both sides. Conventional wisdom is that politics has no place in how the military and intelligence instruments of power are used.
It has been customary in the military for officers, especially senior ones, to steer clear of politics, even in retirement. The military is, or should be, above politics and as a result enjoys high public favorability ratings.
It is not clear whether senior intelligence officials share this custom, but they probably should. A senior military officer may hang up his or her uniform in retirement but will always bear the burden of service and continues to represent the military forever. The same can be said for senior intelligence officers.
Accordingly, the public revelation of strong political views by these people can affect both the military and intelligence services. To many Americans, the list of former CIA Director John Brennan’s supporters comprises non-partisan, patriotic Americans who felt compelled to respond to President Trump’s egregious use of power for political purposes.
To be sure, these supporters were very fine public servants. This is why their response to revoking Mr. Brennan’s security clearance by the president is so noteworthy.
Some have argued that the president’s complete disregard for custom coupled with his strong-arm tactics are destroying our institutions thereby necessitating such an unusual response. Others argue that Mr. Brennan’s highly partisan rhetoric, given his status, was a violation of norms and the president’s action was justified.
While both the president and the former director of the CIA were likely wrong, the visible story hides a much more important issue — when should generals, admirals and senior intelligence officers step foot into the political arena?
What is clear and unassailable is senior military and intelligence officers have recently put their collective foot on the political log in ways that are, at best, only tangentially linked to their professional backgrounds.
They are using their service to the nation and their well-earned reputations to denounce a wrong committed by the president. They have a right to do so. But I can’t help but wonder where their political instincts were when these same individuals were responsible for applying our nation’s military and intelligence capabilities to support the national interest, something directly linked to their professions.
Specifically, where was the dialogue that was needed to keep our country from being engaged in never-ending wars? Did these same senior officials also enter the political arena when they were duty-bound to do so and no one else could?
The answer is not evident. Whatever sparing that might have occurred would rightfully have taken place behind closed doors and should remain there. And the authority of the president would have been unambiguous and beyond question.
If these political dialogues did take place, every president since 9/11 did not listen while military and intelligence professionals respectfully, and presumably forcefully, laid out the limits of American power. Given that even the most unsavory politician recognizes the virtue of results, it seems likely that many senior military and intelligence officers opted out of the political arena when their professional judgments were irreplaceable.
I am not sure whether Mr. Brennan’s notable supporters are right or wrong. I worry that the potential harm to our democratic institutions that brought these men and women together may also damage the apolitical nature of our military and intelligence organizations. Unless, of course, they are already damaged, which would explain why we cannot seem to win wars anymore.
• Hy Rothstein teaches at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Cailfornia. The views expressed are his own.
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