Defense

Fears grow as military pulled into presidential politics

Greg Nash
The military is getting pulled into the presidential election fight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which some fear is harming its reputation and ability to serve the future president. 
 
Retired, high-ranking military officers have been given high-profile roles in the Trump and Clinton campaigns, which critics argue risks harming the military’s status as an apolitical institution that serves the commander in chief regardless of party.
 
{mosads}Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, an ardent Trump supporter and adviser, and retired Marine Gen. John Allen, a Clinton supporter, were both given primetime speaking slots at the political parties’ recent conventions. 
 
Flynn was rumored to be a vice presidential contender for Trump, the Republican nominee.
 
Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, was also vetted as a possible Clinton vice presidential pick and has criticized Trump. 
 
Some former and current officers in the military are worried over what they are seeing in both parties.
 
“The military is not a political prize. Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage,” retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a sharply worded letter to the editor in The Washington Post over the weekend. 
 
Dempsey warned the participation by former military leaders will make it more difficult for the current military to stay out of politics.
 
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
 
Dempsey isn’t alone.
 
The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, also recently reminded current senior officers to remain apolitical so that the next commander in chief has trust and confidence that the military “is completely loyal and completely prepared to do what must be done.”
 
“Importantly, as an institution, the American people cannot be looking at us as a special-interest group or a partisan organization,” Dunford said. “I will exercise my right to vote, but no one knows the lever I pull.”
 
Dempsey and others, including Duke University military historian Peter Feaver, acknowledge that political participation by retired generals and admirals is not new.
 
Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, was the most recent general to be elected president, while Army Gen. Wesley Clark ran for the White House as a Democrat in 2004. Army Gen. Colin Powell, who served as secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration, has been seen as a prospective presidential candidate in the past.
 
The difference, critics argue, is that when generals run for office, they become politicians and are held accountable by the public.
 
In these current cases, retired officers are simply using their military status to endorse a candidate without being held accountable by the public. 
 
Endorsements by former military leaders aren’t new either.
 
In 1992, retired Navy Adm. William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed Bill Clinton. 
 
“That doesn’t make it good,” Feaver said.
 
Dempsey and his predecessor, retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, have in the last few political cycles made a concerted effort to get retired generals to stop becoming politically active.
 
It has worked to some degree, Feaver said.
 
What seems to be new now, he argued, is the hyper-partisanship of the civilian world, which is raising the stakes for military involvement.
 
Feaver said this was evident in the partisan attacks by Flynn and Allen.
 
Flynn led a chant during the Republican National Convention of “Lock her up!” in reference to Clinton.
 
Allen, who endorsed Hillary over anti-war chants at the Democratic National Convention, argued in an ABC News interview after the convention that Trump was unqualified to judge his military service because he had never served.
 
“This time, they’ve both spent as much time attacking the other candidate as supporting their own … they’re engaged in the most bitter of partisan exercises,” Feaver said.
 
Keeping the military out of politics would be an uphill battle — particularly this year.
 
Trump has repeatedly dragged the military into several controversies, first by attacking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was held prisoner during the Vietnam War, as “not a war hero” and later by saying he would order troops to waterboard terrorists and kill their families.
 
More recently, the businessman criticized the parents of U.S. Army soldier Humayun Khan, who was killed in the Iraq War, after they gave a speech at the Democratic convention questioning Trump’s knowledge of the Constitution.
 
Trump’s criticism of Khizr and Gazala Khan has created its own controversy and led a half dozen veteran organizations to denounce him.
 
On Monday, a bipartisan group of prominent veterans and family members of those killed sent a letter to Trump, calling on the Republican nominee to apologize. 
 
“This week, when you chose to disparage the family of an American soldier who gave his life in combat, you chose to disparage all of us,” said the letter. 
 
“I’ve never seen a more unified and aggressive response from the military and the veterans communities,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who is a signatory. “This is unprecedented.” 
 
Rieckhoff, however, said he disagrees with Dempsey and believes it’s important for veterans to be part of the political process since there are fewer politicians today with a military background or expertise. 
 
“I respectfully disagree and I think it also has the risk of sending a chilling effect across the veterans community,” he said. “Everybody’s got a right to be involved in the political process, especially veterans.”  
 
This story was updated at 10:01 a.m. 
Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain
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