A conversation with retired NATO commander General Phil Breedlove about Ukraine, JAGs, leadership, and more
We were honored to have retired NATO commander General Phil Breedlove give the leadership presentation at the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security’s 27th Annual National Security Law Conference last week. The video of this very fascinating conversation is packed full of wisdom, insight and practical examples. You’re invited to watch (or listen to) our “fireside chat“ here.
A bit of what you will hear:
Regarding the war in Eastern Europe, General Breedlove believes it is “bigger than Ukraine” for Vladimir Putin:
[It is] about restructuring the security architecture and infrastructure of Europe. It’s about rebuilding the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. It’s about re-establishing dominance of those nations along the periphery of Russia. It’s about rolling history back to pre-1997, at least in the documents, but truly to the Soviet Union days.
He talked about the Russian military logistics miscalculation, and also regarding the potential of cyber-empowered information warfare. As to the latter he notes:
[T]he West, and especially the United States, has truly never entered the information war at the strategic or operational level. We’ve had some times in our past back in a lot of the things we did in Central America, et cetera. We had some informational wars that were happening at a very lower level.
But at the level that Russia, China, Daesh, or ISIS, IS, or whatever you want to call them, some of these folks have waged wars against us, or with us. We have never really entered that sphere.
General Breedlove had many other interesting observations. For example, he told us he thought “NATO is going to be more important in the next 70 years than it was in the last 75,” but also added:
[W]e are now going to be in a state of what I call constant war. I mean, the below the line war that some people call hybrid, or gray zone, it’s going on in every capital right now.
He later addressed the seeming cooperation between Russia and China, and observed:
The things that they’re doing together now are terribly superficial. They’ll call an exercise together, and they may steam within 200 miles of each other. But it’s not like NATO nations sailing in the same formation, flying in the same formation, fighting together on the battlefield. They’re just not at that point yet. It’s more now I think for geopolitical impact in the information spaces that we see them cooperating.
He also spoke extensively about his relationship with judge advocates or “JAGs”. Drawing upon his eight tours as a commander, he said:
[I]t was clear to me that any time I started a new command, or even a supervisory position that was not a command, like the Vice Chief of the Air Force, that one of the first things I needed to do was have a relationship with a JAG that first started with complete trust and confidence. So that I could take things to that person, and know that they weren’t going to blow up in my face for nefarious reasons, and knowing that I had a teammate that had the same vision of what we needed from the organization, and would help me work towards that vision….I can’t even imagine getting through that whole gamut [of commands] successfully with a JAG that I didn’t trust, or didn’t “vulcan mind meld” with on how we were going to work forward.
Notably, he said that during combat operations a commander is:
…going to turn and look at his JAG. And he or she will render an opinion that then either enables the commander, or suggests caution. The JAG doesn’t make the decision. But the commander makes a decision based on what the JAG tells them. And all of these things come into play.
He added there is a “fighting piece” in the commander-JAG relationship, and cautioned:
But if you’re doing a big fight, you can’t have a JAG that says, well, wait a minute. Let me go think about that. Or wait a minute, I need to call my boss. Or wait a minute, because we don’t get to wait 20 seconds in some of these decisions.
So you have to have a JAG that has a certain amount of chutzpah, and is confident in him or herself to be able to advise you at threat speed. And these are not easy things to do. And it takes a certain type. And so that’s the fighting piece.
General Breedlove also talked about leadership, and spoke about how much he valued General Colin Powell’s mentorship:
But the first thing I would tell you that is that whether you agree with [General Powell] in life, and some of the things that he decided in life or not, he had the courage of his convictions. And what he told me more than once was, Phil, you are where you are because people know you can do the job and they respect your experience. So don’t be a “yes man.” Don’t go with the crowd when it’s easy.
Be yourself. Have the courage of your convictions to stand up for what you believe, because that’s why they put you where you are. And he also tweaked me a little bit on message, because one time I said, you know, I’ve got to go back to the NAC [North Atlantic Council], and talk to them about what I’m recommending for Russia as they have just previously invaded Ukraine. And then I said, next week, I got to go testify to the SASC [Senate Armed Services Committee] And I’m just worried about how I’m going to re-craft this message.
And he looked me right in the eye, he said, don’t. He says, I’ve listened to you. You say the right things. Don’t change them. Say them a lot. Repetition and simplicity is important. And I know this sounds like a trivial thing that I’m bringing up, but it’s really important for us to understand that you’re put in positions because people believe you’re not only qualified, but that you’re more capable, and you will grow.
So don’t go someplace and think, I have to change myself now because I’m the SACEUR of NATO. No, you have the courage of your convictions that got you to where you are. Be yourself. Get on message. Stay on message. And don’t let outside people try– don’t let them affect who you are and what you’re there to do. You do the job that you were hired to do, and you were prepared for, and move out.
There is much, much more to this timely interview that you won’t want to miss! Again, watch (or listen to) the complete conversation here.