We Need Prudent Elder Statesmen

My latest for The National Interest is out.

My latest for The National Interest is out. The title, which I didn’t choose, is provocative but rather misleading “Social Media Attacks on Trump Could Put America’s Security at Risk.” The piece rather defies excerpting but contrasts the recent condemnations of President Trump’s revocation of John Brennan’s security clearance from retired Admiral Bill McRaven and various other senior former officials with those of Brennan himself.

It is too early to know whether these statements will have any impact on the national debate. Thus far, opinions on Trump have been decidedly inelastic, seemingly impervious to evidence. To the extent that McRaven and the others change minds, however, it will come not only because of their impressive contributions in service to the nation but because they have kept their powder dry, weighing in only on egregious violations of the norms of our Constitutional system, and are not seen as partisan actors.

[…]

Brennan’s caustic and frequently juvenile attacks on Trump are simply beneath the dignity of the office he so recently held. People like Brennan, McRaven, and the thirteen signatories of the open letter linked in the introduction continue to serve as elder statesmen and owe it to the nation to be prudent in their public commentary.

Since retiring from the Navy, the only time we’ve heard from McRaven was when he was counseling young Americans to make their beds first thing every morning. His speaking out so forcefully on Brennan’s security clearance is powerful precisely because he’s stayed above the fray until now.

There’s also a discussion of civil-military relations that I’ve expanded upon in a piece out for review.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Military Affairs, National Security, Published Elsewhere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    James:

    Trump has lived down to the worst expectations of his harshest critics. Now, from the start there’ve been people insisting we be restrained in describing the unrestrained. There may be tactical reasons to do that, but claiming that people like Brennan have stepped over the line would, I should think, rest on whether Brennan has been wrong. Can you point to a Brennan tweet that was factually incorrect? Or a Brennan tweet expressing an opinion which is somehow unreasonable?

    I describe things and people and situations for a living, and I can tell you that the gap between the event and the description of same can only be so wide without falling of its own weight and obscuring what was meant to be clarified. IOW, you cannot describe Stalin as a ‘miscreant,’ or Hitler as, ‘cranky,’ or Jeffery Dahmer as ‘an exotic gourmet.’ That may seem superficially more polite, but it subverts rather than enhance the accuracy of the description.

    A pig is a pig. Call it a pig. A creep is a creep. Call him a creep. How about we call things what they are? How’s that for a crazy idea? More than two years ago, right here at OTB, I said Trump was a psychopath, and oh goodness, too harsh, too partisan, extreme, hysterical, blah blah blah. And now a wide swathe of the American people agree. Because he is a psychopath, and a stupid one as I said, and the fact that I called it early does not mean I was being intemperate, it just means I was right sooner than the consensus.

    We should use the English language with some accuracy. Failing to do so out of some vague notion of propriety helps the offender, not the victims or the law.

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  2. SKI says:

    A few thoughts:

    Brennan, by contrast, continues to represent the CIA and intelligence community

    Why do you think he still represents them? Has he claimed to do so?
    Perhaps the problem isn’t with Brennen but your perception that there is something magical about national security people that makes them removed and separate from the rest of us mere mortals?

    While it’s obvious to me that he’s intending to speak only for himself, the general public will naturally see him as the spokesman for CIA officers who are unable to voice their opinions because of the nature of their oath.

    Evidence for this claim? You think the public are stupid? That you can see that he is intending to speak for himself but they, the great unwashed masses, will decide otherwise?

    While many fiercely argue that, once retired, officers become mere civilians, entitled to unfettered free-speech rights like the rest of us, many of us disagree.

    Again, I suggest that the problem is your need to put military officers and national security professionals on a pedestal.

    It’s clearly wildly inappropriate for retired generals and admirals to endorse or oppose the re-election of officials they’ve recently served or worked alongside, as Bill Crowe did in 1992. It’s murkier but still highly frowned upon to endorse candidates for partisan office, like John Allen and Mike Flynn did in 2016.

    Again you presume a truth is universally shared. If you feel the need to claim something is “clearly” anything, it is a sign that you have a weak argument.

    There is an obvious rationale, which you cover in your article for current military personnel to not engage in partisan politics. They are subject to civilian control and they have the guns.

    What is the argument, in an age where we do not have a military caste, that their former service makes them ineligible to participate in our society as free citizens? they can’t, like certain Roman generals of yore, command the allegiance of the army despite their retirement. So what is the issue?

    Similarly, how can it be wrong for former military to endorse or oppose candidates but ok for Eisenhower or Washington to be President (or most of our early leaders for that matter)?

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  3. Joe says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    But the English language is also a political tool. I don’t disagree with your assessment of the truth of Brennan’s attacks but, if it set him, like you, in the vanguard, it also left him susceptible to being out on his own, politically. I think there is a place for Brennan (and for Reynolds, for that matter), but I also think there is a place for McRaven, which is not out in front and therefore, is capable of reminding the army behind him that Brennan is credible.

    Responding to Trump or any political movement is a team endeavor. There is a place for many different talents on the team. Not everyone needs to be Brennan and not everyone needs to be McRaven. You need both and many, many others.

  4. Gustopher says:

    For the most part, the Elder Statesmen are letting America down by saying nothing.

    How many living ex-Presidents do we have? Two Bushes, one Clinton and Obama. Ex-Vice-Presidents? Former Presidential Candidates? Retired Senators?

    How often do you hear from them when Donald Trump continually destroys the norms that make this country function, appeals to white nationalists, and shows a greater deference to Putin than to American intelligence? Basically nothing.

    So, if Brennan gets a little exuberant, I’m willing to cut him some slack. He’s speaking up.

    The rest should be. Unless they are ok with this. Unless they believe that this is America and what America represents.

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  5. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    How many living ex-Presidents do we have? Two Bushes, one Clinton and Obama.

    I guess Jimmy Carter is that forgettable.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: As I note in the piece, I generally think Brennan’s sentiments are right. I just think it’s inappropriate for Obama’s CIA Director, especially one who was a career officer, to say so. And he’s gone over the line a few times, most notably with “treason” charges.

    @SKI: My training and education on the military profession carries over to my view of the IC. It’s not that they’re all that special. It’s that they hold a special trust. And particularly senior officers—generals and admirals in the military and top officials in the IC—are always going to be seen as speaking for those still serving who cannot. That’s especially true of those who served recently.

    @Gustopher: As I say in the piece, they have not only the right but an obligation to speak up when the President violates his oath to the Constitution. But that’s only impactful if they’re extremely careful in the manner in which they do so.

    @Gustopher: The problem for former Presidents is that they’re seen as partisan when they criticize successors of the other party. The Bushes have spoken out against Trump, although very obliquely.

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  7. An Interested Party says:

    Much more important than having prudent elder statesmen is to have a prudent president…until that happens, it really doesn’t matter much what elder statesmen do…

  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “…are always going to be seen as speaking for those still serving who cannot.”

    I don’t buy this, but I may be the only person who see’s Brennan’s statements as Brennan’s alone. I also don’t see them as carrying more weight because of who he was in government. I try to evaluate not by the credentials of the speaker but by the accuracy of the statement. On what he said about Trump, he was right. Whether he should have said it is a fight for which I have no dog.

  9. Slugger says:

    As a certified old fool, I don’t think that we, our nation, can rely on “prudent elder statesmen.” I doubt that there is such a thing. Old men are too invested in justifying their old mistakes. The hands that hold the tiller have to do the work. No deus ex machina.

  10. mattbernius says:

    James, thanks for keeping the dialog open. If you don’t mind answering, where do you net out on folks like Tom Nichols offering aggressive, harsh critiques of Trump?

    Does his stature (or lack there of) make it more appropriate for him?

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Joe:
    I agree that there’s room for a wide range of expression. But there are limits. Genocide is genocide, not gentrification. When an unhinged criminal psychopath has control of 7,000 nuclear warheads, I’m not sure what would qualify as hyperbole.

    @Slugger:
    I agree. In this most recent election the youth showed a hell of a lot more sense than the elder generations. It’s funny, but I think a certain number of younger people (not most) want a world where age = wisdom, but older people know better.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius: The amusing thing re: Tom Nichols was that, brilliant as he is, he always came across as something of a pompous ass on Twitter. Until the rise of Trump in the primaries and, especially, Trump’s election. Since then, he’s been extremely careful in his choice of words. Moreso than me. And it’s made his voice much more powerful.

  13. george says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Trump has lived down to the worst expectations of his harshest critics

    Well, not quite – some people seriously predicted he’d already have us in a nuclear war with North Korea by now (read articles from early 2017 if you’ve forgotten). That possibility is still on the table, but he hasn’t reached it yet.

    But yeah, he’s been a terrible president.

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  14. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    My training and education on the military profession carries over to my view of the IC. It’s not that they’re all that special. It’s that they hold a special trust. And particularly senior officers—generals and admirals in the military and top officials in the IC—are always going to be seen as speaking for those still serving who cannot. That’s especially true of those who served recently.

    My point is that your perception isn’t shared by the rest of us. We don’t think they hold a special trust or that any individual speaks for those still serving.

    Could you try answering the questions I asked above. Why can’t they speak but Washington, et al., could run for office? What is the difference?

    Why do you insist they are special?

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  15. Guarneri says:

    All you have to do is read one of Reynold’s comments and the notion of rational discourse becomes mute.

    I leave today for 2 1/2 weeks on an Alaskan cruise. I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that when I get back the same invective as the past two years will be getting hurled like caged monkeys flinging poo. The subject matter simply shifts as old outrages fade.

    Oh, it’s all nicely cloaked in high minded concerns about morality, the sanctity of the office, brainpower etc. Some even venture into pitiful displays of amateur psychology. But striking is the lack of historical and similar concerns about other elected officials. Weaponizing the IRS anyone? How about Clinton boinking the intern pool? Or his wretched wife running the destroy women operation, champion of the softer sex and all. And Ocasio-Cortez? IQ north of 90? Could Lizzie Warren be more void of a moral compass?

    It’s all BS. And you know you are lost when porn stars become your oracle of choice. The simple fact is that this is nothing but fear of a change agent and infantile ranting about the unexpected loss by a crooked candidate with the morals of a snake and a personality somewhere between a turnip and a catfish. The people saw through it, and “stupid” Trump beat “the smartest woman in the world” (Snicker) at the game. Oh, how that galls.

    Grow up and get over it. But something tells me there are 2 1/2 weeks of the same old same old coming. Speaking of psychology, any competent one will tell you that’s an indicator of profound personality disorders.

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Guarneri:
    You’re right, Drew. It’s all fake! Trump is a great man, he’s a great president, you got some extra dollars so really that’s all that matters, go off on your cruise and enjoy ranting to all the other pensioners. It’s all going to be great! Great I tells ya! Have a nice trip.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @george:
    I’ve never quite expected Trump to start a war, I’ve been thinking it’s 50/50. On the one hand he’s a reckless idiot inclined to pop off randomly, on the other hand he’s a coward and a weakling. He knows intuitively he’s not man enough to manage a war, but at the same time he’s a cornered rat, so who knows?

    I think politically a war would have maybe been a slight, temporary plus for Trump a year ago. Now? Now it would be politically disastrous.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @SKI: There’s seventy-odd years worth of literature on civil-military relations, starting with Huntington’s SOLDIER AND THE STATE (1957) and Janowitz’ THE PROFESSIONAL SOLDIER (1960). I wrote a longish essay on the topic for War on The Rocks a couple years back. We have a long history of generals running for political office. I’m a little uncomfortable with it but the consensus is that, in doing so, they become full-fledged politicians. When they keep the mantle of “general” but engage in partisan activity, they break a trust with the public and with policymakers.

  19. John430 says:

    Brennan shoots mouth off, Brennan loses clearance.
    For every action there is a reaction.
    –old scientific proverb

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  20. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Kathy: Jimmy may be forgettable, but it’s largely because he maintains a schedule of commitments that would exhaust most younger men. At a recent gathering where I was in attendance, he minced no words about his belief that Trump is a disaster.

  21. Franklin says:

    @Kathy: Old JC was just in the news for living in a house that costs $167K and shopping at the local dollar store. It’s not that he’s forgettable (and I think I detect that you were just having fun), it’s that’s he going about his business quietly, including his philanthropy.

  22. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I just think it’s inappropriate for Obama’s CIA Director, especially one who was a career officer, to say so.

    So, which was it? Was he Obama’s CIA Director, or was he a career officer? It can’t be both, and you of all people should know that.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    When they keep the mantle of “general” but engage in partisan activity, they break a trust with the public and with policymakers.

    Can you offer any evidence that they “keep the mantle of General” in more minds that yours? Or perhaps more than those closely associated with the military?

    Here’s a crazy idea… how about we call them ‘Mister’ and ‘Ms.’ once they’ve retired, like we do with ordinary people who no longer hold a particular job? Would that help? Or would you object to it as being insufficiently deferential? I’m having trouble telling whether you think treating retired military as if they were still serving is a bug, or a feature.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: He was a career professional who retired, had a brief foray into the private sector, and then a series of appointments under Obama. So he’s both a career professional and someone easily portrayed as a partisan.

    @DrDaveT: They continue to be referred to and to refer to themselves as General or Admiral. They signed the open letters that way.

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Guarneri: Enjoy your trip. I was going to take an Alaska cruise this summer but didn’t get to it. Maybe next year. I wish we would be missing your insights on the issues of the day while you are gone, but since you never have any, missing them will be difficult. But have a good time just the same.

  26. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    They continue to be referred to and to refer to themselves as General or Admiral.

    Yes, they do. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?