Smacking Down Partisan Generals…and Raising Up Academic Freedom

If any retired generals or admirals are looking for kudos for their dive into partisan political endorsements at the Republican and Democratic conventions, allow me to suggest that Duke University may not be the place they will want to start.

In a letter to the Washington Post (“Military leaders do not belong at political conventions”) retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (MA in English from Duke and current Rubenstein Fellow here) savaged their behavior.  While the whole letter is worth a full ‘read,’ here’s the key part:

Retired Marine Gen. John Allen and retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn weren’t introduced at the Democratic and Republican conventions, respectively, as “John” and “Mike.”  They were introduced as generals.  As generals, they have an obligation to uphold our apolitical traditions.  They have just made the task of their successors — who continue to serve in uniform and are accountable for our security — more complicated.  It was a mistake for them to participate as they did.  It was a mistake for our presidential candidates to ask them to do so.

This isn’t any sort of “gag order” on retired senior officers.  As his letter itself demonstrates, General Dempsey is not saying retired generals and admirals should never speak out, but rather that there are limits.  In a longer essay published yesterday in Defense One he sets out the proper professional parameters:

Publicly, [retired generals and admirals] can speak to their experiences with the issues.  Not about those seeking office.  Not about who is more suited to be elected.  That will be decided by the voters, and they have an obligation to learn about the candidates before casting their vote.

He also doesn’t object to privately advising candidates.  Retired Army major general Robert Scales (MA/PhD in History from Duke) told Military Times: “I don’t think Marty [Dempsey] had any problem at all with people advising,…I think his problem is a large public display advocacy, particularly for a recently retired general.”

(General Dempsey said as much again in his new Defense One piece where he wrote that retired officers are “free to speak to those seeking elected office” but counsels that they should do so “privately, where it will not be interpreted that they are speaking for us all.”)

It is true that the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate public speech by retired senior officers can sometimes be blurry.  However, the public endorsement of candidates at national political conventions (which the highly-regarded historian Richard Kohn calls “perhaps the most partisan institutions in our political system”) crosses a line that is very bold and distinct.

Does this mean retired senior officers shouldn’t run for office?  No.  General Dempsey made that very clear back in 2014 when he said that “If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I’m all for it.  But don’t get out of the military … and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate.”

I appreciate that civilians may have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that it is “ok” for a retired officer to run for office, but not “ok” to publicly endorse a presidential candidate.  In his Defense One essay General Dempsey addresses this by pointing out that if a retired general or admiral chooses to run themselves, “they become accountable to voters” adding that “[i]n simply advocating—or giving speeches—they are not.”

Also keep in mind that candidates for public office are typically scrutinized by the citizenry not with regard to their warfighting prowess, but as to their ability to accomplish the range of complicated tasks of civilian governance.  Military experience helps, but they are ultimately judged as to their competence with respect to mainly civilian matters.

Put another way, generals and admirals who engage in partisan endorsement circumvent the sort of vetting process that an actual candidate would undergo.  Endorsers trade exclusively on their military background, and often conduct themselves in a way that suggests they represent a constituency beyond themselves.

In essence, they want to imply to the public that the candidates they back enjoy not just their personal support as individual members of the electorate, but also the approval of the military writ large, which is the most trusted institution in American society.  To me, doing so is unseemly and inappropriate.

In a Foreign Affairs article (“We Don’t Need Generals to Become Cheerleaders at Political Conventions”) Duke professor Peter Feaver – the nation’s top political scientist as regards to civil-military relations’ issues – critically addresses the difference between running for office and providing partisan endorsements:

It is different if a retired military figure actually runs for political office, as Generals Washington, Jackson, Grant, and Eisenhower did successfully (and countless other veterans of lower rank have done at all levels of political ambition).  When you stand for office you officially cross over and become a politician — you are viewed as a partisan politician and thenceforth can only speak as a partisan.  Likewise, it is different if you are only opining on policy — we should do more (or less) in the fight against the Islamic State, we should buy or not buy this weapon system, and so on.

In any event, it may be that there are scholars somewhere at Duke who think otherwise, but for now the score is three zip (four zip if you count Duke alumnus MG Scales) against the conduct of the retired generals and admirals at both the political conventions.

Since I think my colleagues have well-addressed the central issue, allow me to focus on just one part of the speech given at the Democratic convention by retired Rear Admiral (RADM) John Hutson, a former military lawyer and the dean emeritus of the University of New Hampshire School of Law.  Given his status as a former educator, I was surprised to see this passage in his remarks (that were apparently cleared in advance and were found in his delivered speech):

And of Vladimir Putin, [Trump] said, and I quote, “in terms of leadership he’s getting an “A.”  I taught national security law.  Praising dictators is an automatic “F” in my class.

The concern here is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of Mr. Trump’s assessment of Putin, but rather RADM Hutson’s assertion that in his class a student gets an “automatic F” when that person happens to express what RADM Hutson would apparently consider to be a repugnant opinion.  I recognize that free speech is under siege on many campuses, but how does his view square with the official policy of his University?  It says:

The University is committed as well to the free and open exchange of ideas, active discourse, and critical debate so necessary to a university.  Accordingly, all members of the University of New Hampshire community have the right to hold and vigorously defend and promote their opinions.  The exercise of this right may result in members of the community being exposed to ideas that they considered unorthodox, controversial, or even repugnant. (Italics added.)

Moreover, isn’t it a historical fact that some (or even most) dictators – to include particularly those we dislike – were nevertheless remarkably effective leaders by any fair measure?  To be clear, scholars certainly may not endorse a person’s ideologies or moral character, yet still recognize their formidable leadership talent.  Indeed, isn’t the role of educators to expose students to all kinds of leadership – including that of dictators – to see if there is anything to learn?

For example, Julius Caesar was a Roman dictator but his leadership ability and military prowess is highly-regarded and still studied by civilian and military experts everywhere.  Ditto for Napoleon.  Could not some reasonable people have much respect for the capabilities (if not the politics) of Mao Tse-tung and even Fidel Castro despite the fact that they appear on lists of famous dictators?

Let’s also ask ourselves: are all dictators evil?  If you define a “dictator” (as the dictionary does) as “a person exercising absolute power,” where does that leave someone like Pope Francis?   After all, the Pope is the unassailable, leader-for-life of the Vatican or Holy See, a fully independent nation that describes its governance in the CIA World Factbook as an “absolute monarchy.”  Does praising the leadership of Pope Francis earn you an “automatic F” in RADM Hutson’s mind?

Consider as well Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who some consider to have been a dictator.  One source that does see him as that nevertheless notes that “Atatürk’s most notable, almost impossible, achievement was the transformation of the Islamic Ottoman Empire into the politically secular Republic of Turkey.”  Isn’t that an admirable accomplishment of leadership?

And what about General Douglas MacArthur?  Historian Stephen Ambrose says in his book Americans at War that MacArthur ruled post-war Japan as a “virtual dictator” but nevertheless “ran the fairest and most honest occupation in all of history.”  According to Ambrose, MacArthur helped create for Japan what he describes as “undoubtedly the most liberal constitution in history,” a document which gave the Japanese “for the first time in their history, a bill of rights.”  Isn’t that leadership worthy of praise, even though it came from a “virtual dictator”?

Additionally, from a purely military perspective, it is a great mistake not to recognize the effectiveness of opposing leaders.  Underestimating the leadership ability of the Communist general Vo Nguyen Giap is often cited as one of the most serious of the blunders that doomed the French army to defeat in its Indochina War of the 1950s.

Over two thousand years ago the distinguished Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu warned about the consequences of not making an honest appraisal of opponents when he said:

He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.  (Italics added.)

In short, there is every reason for serious professionals – to include law students – to study the leadership of opponents and to candidly assess their abilities.  Again, Sun Tzu wisely advises:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. (Italics added.)

Regardless of where you are situated on the political spectrum, can’t we all agree that academic freedom – even with respect to measuring the ability of people we may oppose – is cardinal value very much worthy of not just preserving, but actually raising up in these difficult times?

Let’s not make giving “automatic Fs” to students for expressing “unorthodox, controversial, or even repugnant” views in an academic setting part of anyone’s political agenda.

Just for the record, I am a registered independent, and as a retired military officer I do not publicly support any candidate.

Update 3 Aug: Be sure to check out Professor Feaver’s additional views on his Shadow Government blog found here.

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