Evidently what five-star General Douglas McArthur famously said in his farewell address at West Point is no longer true: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Today’s “old soldiers” refuse to fade away. Some of them are using their retired bully pulpits to criticize President Trump’s foreign policy decisions and by association defend their own failed leadership.
Recently retired General Dave Petraeus conducted an interview with Martha MacCallum, critical of President Trump’s decision to withdraw our troops from Syria.
Even former Secretary of Defense under Trump and retired Marine Corps General James Mattis is a critic. In early January of 2020, General Mattis was the keynote speaker at the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York City where he used the opportunity to take a swipe at President Trump who previously called Mattis “the world’s most overrated general.” Although Mattis is known for being very careful about his public statements regarding Mr. Trump, the general used his sense of humor to counterattack Trump’s recent criticism with the line: “I’m honored to be considered that [overrated general] by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress.” He continued “So, I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.”
Jokes aside, in the past retired generals generally didn’t criticize the sitting president in part because of tradition but also because they remain subject to the Uniform Code Military Justice, and yes old soldiers can be called back to active duty and court-martialed, albeit rarely. There is in fact a law (UCMJ, Article 88, Contempt Toward Officials) that prohibits showing disrespect to the president.
Mattis and Petraeus aren’t the only retired generals calling out the President, a possible dangerous break in tradition that could hurt the republic. Earlier this month retired Admiral William McRaven wrote in The New York Times that our nation is under attack from within. “Last week I attended two memorable events that reminded me why we care so very much about this nation and also why our future may be in peril,” Admiral McRaven, a former Navy SEAL, wrote in the Times. He said America is marked by “an underlying current of frustration, humiliation, anger, and fear that echoed across the sidelines.” And he continued, America is “under attack, not from without, but from within.” This was a swipe at the president.
Other retired flag officers joined the chorus of critics. Retired General John Allen, once commander of American forces in Afghanistan, said events in Syria were “completely foreseeable” and Trump “greenlighted” Turkey’s recent invasion of the Kurdish northeast. “This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats,” Allen said.
Another retired four-star Army general, Stanley McChrystal, called Trump’s decision regarding the Kurds “immoral” and more recently retired Army General Joseph Votel, formerly the commander of U.S. Central Command, said Trump’s Syria abandonment of the Syrian Kurds “threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights in which we need strong allies.”
What should we make of all the four-star criticism of Mr. Trump? One could conclude that our national security decision-making is truly dysfunctional and that the nation is dangerously at risk. That may be true.
Alternatively, one could conclude that Mr. Trump’s governing philosophy really rubs the retired military’s top brass in a very wrong way, which compels them to speak out. After all, Mr. Trump is an unorthodox transactional leader who sees the world as having a malign impact on the United States. That means he relies on no particular philosophy or morality to guide his foreign policy decisions; rather he makes judgments based solely on American interests. Remember his 2016 campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again!”
President Trump’s record of putting America first is getting results. He is as hard as nails with the communist Chinese, especially on trade. It’s about time America has a leader who demands a fair deal from Beijing. Mr. Trump rightly insists our NATO allies pay their fair share of the burden of defending that continent against the Russian threat. He wants to end our longest war in Afghanistan, exit Syria and reduce our footprint in many of the other endless wars across the world. Perhaps best known is Mr. Trump’s promise to secure our border, which is happening in spite of the best efforts by the Democratic Party. Evidently all this progress is bad in the eyes of some former commanders whose hands were behind our post-911 bad decisions to heavily invest America’s blood and treasure abroad in others’ fights.
The growing covey of malcontent retired four-star flag officers evidently believe the president has abandoned America’s long-standing post-World War II sense of responsibility for international security – what Mr. Trump famously argues is acting as the world’s policeman, something he intends to quit. Is that really so bad? Just maybe that’s what we must do to “Make America Great Again!”
Mr. Trump campaigned on many issues and to most everyone’s surprise, he’s delivering on those promises. I suppose the four-star officer critics who are invested in decades of questionable foreign entanglements feel they must defend their past decisions against this unorthodox president’s unorthodox foreign policy approach much as the crazy congressional Democrats are blinded by their post-2016 election rage which compels them to seek to impeach this president no matter what and at the expense of much-needed legislation on important issues such as health care, illegal immigration, a failing infrastructure to name a few.
Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, the Command & General Staff College, the Defense Language School and the Army War College’s strategy course. He is an Airborne-Ranger infantry officer with service in four infantry divisions on three continents. He is the author of nearly a thousand articles and five published books.