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Should Generals Join the Political Fray? Of Course

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Should retired warriors play politics? Those of us who sat through the bombastic convention speeches by two retired generals with seven stars between them -- Michael Flynn (Republicans) and John Allen (Democrats) -- might be forgiven for thinking: "Absolutely not!"

But those speakers' histrionics aside, the question has taken on new urgency after Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly urged his colleagues to steer clear of direct partisanship:

Publicly, they 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.

But not from us.

Because we have a special role in our democracy, and because we will serve whoever is elected.

This may seem like a direct affront to both our ideals of free speech and a desire for voters to have the best advice possible from some of our finest and most experienced minds.

Yet Dempsey makes a strong case: Because "generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life" and "it is therefore nearly impossible for them to speak exclusively for themselves when speaking publicly," they should limit their partisan involvement to behind-the-scenes advisory roles. (He does carve out an Eisenhower exception for those willing to throw their peaked caps into the ring.)

Dempsey isn't alone. His predecessor at the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, put it this way after the 2008 presidential election: "I remain concerned about the degree to which the American people confuse active-duty representatives and retired or veteran representatives."

Peter D. Feaver, a former George W. Bush adviser, wrote in the Atlantic that the speeches by Flynn and Allen were "corrosive" because the men used the authority they gleaned from nonpartisan military service in a way that will "encourage political leaders to view the military as an interest group to be mobilized and professional military advice as one more partisan voice to be spun."

Others aren't so worked up about it. Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, told the Army Times that an informed public wants and expects former top officers to share their wisdom. She says that, as a group, ex-generals are less partisan than any other group of professionals and that Flynn and Allen were the "exception rather than the norm."

The problem with this view of retired generals as angels in epaulets is that history tells a very different story. Consider, for example, the 1992 presidential election.

In the Republican primaries, P.X. Kelly, a former Marine Corps commandant, did a TV ad on behalf of President George H.W. Bush attacking his rival Patrick Buchanan. During the general election, another retired Joint Chiefs chairman, Admiral William Crowe, not only endorsed Bill Clinton but also said criticism that the candidate had dodged the Vietnam draft was "divisive and peripheral." Yet one of those Clinton critics was none other than Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces in Operation Desert Storm. He asked: "How does a person who admits that he deliberately did not agree with the war, and therefore did not want to go to that war, how does he handle it when he has to send other people to war?"

Allen and Flynn aren't the only audible veteran voices this year. Several other former military men have inserted themselves into the presidential race, if more subtly. When David Petraeus wrote in May in the Washington Post that he was "increasingly concerned about inflammatory political discourse … against Muslims and Islam, including proposals from various quarters for blanket discrimination against people on the basis of their religion," he didn't need to call out Trump by name.

Likewise, James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander who was rumored to have been on Clinton's vice-presidential shortlist, had this advice for active-duty officers speaking to Congress and the press about Trump's dismissive comments on U.S. allies: "When they are asked, for example, if they think NATO is a useful organization, the dilemma is clear -- answering truthfully and correctly that NATO is important and valuable to the U.S. puts them in clear opposition to someone like Trump." And this week, Michael Hayden, a four-star who headed the National Security Agency and CIA, signed a group letter warning that Trump "would be the most reckless president in American history.”

So maybe the question isn't whether these retirees should be sidelined from the political fracas -- because they can't be. But there is a question of degrees. It's one thing for a former general to offer a modest endorsement of a candidate's military judgment, quite another for him to lead a chant of "Lock her up!" (Flynn) or to imply that his preferred candidate's opponent would order the military to carry out murders (Allen). So did those speeches cross some line?

I think not. For one thing, contra Dempsey, the American public is perfectly capable of distinguishing between a serving officer and retired one. More important, exposure to the public arena tends to break down the aura of supreme authority that surrounds a top general or admiral, to give us a clearer view of character and temperament.

To that end, the Flynn and Allen speeches were highly revealing. The two officers didn't do much to further their own reputations -- or those of the candidates they are backing. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net