Uniformly Qualified for High Office

By Sean O'Keefe

Sean O'Keefe served as the CEO of the Airbus Group; Chancellor of Louisiana State University; Administrator of NASA; Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Secretary of the Navy.  He is the 17th person in Syracuse University history to hold the title of University Professor.  

In this, the oddest of election years in recent memory, there have been no shortage of improbable suggestions for safely traversing the electoral minefield.  One idea recently floated (and quickly attacked) was the notion of having a retired general or admiral ride to the rescue – either as a standard bearer or vice president for one of the traditional parties. And increasingly there has been talk of a third party to provide a more palatable alternative to the current offerings.  While the notion of a retired military officer running has been dismissed as either impractical, ill-timed, or somehow anti-democratic, I fully understand why many prospective voters find the idea attractive.

To start – one need only to look at the favorability ratings.  With the leading candidates for both parties held in historically low-regard by voters across the board, and with institutions like Congress having an approval rating of just 17 percent by the public – is it any wonder that people look to the military, which is greatly respected by 72 percent of the public, for leadership?

Why are military officers so highly regarded?  In large part because they get things done.  A good number of legislators have never run anything much bigger than a congressional office.  Most four-star flag and general officers routinely lead hundreds of thousands of subordinates, across continents, carrying out complex missions with the highest of stakes.

Unlike some notable politicians – most military leaders have the ability to get along – not just with each other but with counterparts across the globe, legislators, and with widely disparate community leaders.  The nature of their long, extensive professional development provides many varied opportunities to form alliances in ways that most civilian political leaders are rarely exposed to.  At least one of the leading candidates claims to be considering for a running mate someone who can help work the legislative agenda on Capitol Hill.  There’s not one four star who doesn’t have saddle sores from sitting at far too many Congressional witness tables, offering testimony and views on a wide range of issues. And every one of them has earned the respect of legislators across the partisan divide.  

It has also been intoned that Americans should want a Commander in Chief who can handle one of those 3  A.M. phone calls. Maybe the presumptive nominees should consider hiring someone who spent a career on watch while America slept, to step into the capacity a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  

Perhaps most of all – in the dangerous would we live in – these military leaders understand the enormous human cost of sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way.  And yet with threats looming from nations like Russia, China, North Korean, Syria, and organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS, they also understand the massive potential cost of underestimating the threat, of failing to engage or withdrawing too quickly.

One name bandied around in recent weeks as a potential presidential player is that of retired Marine General Jim Mattis, a highly regarded “warrior monk.”  But even in a time that prizes political incorrectness, Mattis might add even more to the coarse tone of bluntness witnessed this primary season – having said in the past, things like, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”  To his credit, Mattis was reported recently to have made a Sherman-esque rejection of a possible presidential bid.

Some well-known four-stars, either by deed or defect (such as General David Petraeus), probably have removed themselves from serious consideration.  But there are a number of other recently retired four-star officers who could lend critically needed attributes, which seem largely missing from the current crop of political contenders. Let me suggest three.

As a former NASA administrator, it will not surprise you that one of my recommendations is a former astronaut, General Kevin Chilton, a veteran of three space shuttle flights who returned to the Air Force and eventually led the U.S. Strategic Command.  At a time when the United States faces daunting technological challenges and the requirement to make difficult decisions on modernizing all three legs of its nuclear triad, Kevin Chilton would be uniquely qualified to provide the necessary leadership.  And to at least one of the presumptive nominees, knowing a lot about nuclear policy and capability as an instrument of national security might help—a lot.  But Chliton also would bring a personification of the explorer’s spirit to the national ticket; no challenge too great and no achievement too far beyond our reach.   

And as a former Navy Secretary, you might expect I have an Admiral to recommend.  Jim Stavridis is one of the most brilliant officers I have ever known.   At a time when building alliances and coalitions is essential, Jim’s record of seven years as a four-star officer, including four years as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and three leading the U.S. Southern Command (responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean), makes him an ideal choice as someone dedicated to building bridges not walls.  Now the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Jim also excels in communications, both at the strategic and interpersonal level. Fluent in several languages, this proud Greek-American is also a native Floridian—a huge asset for any ticket. 

And there are several fine Army candidates, none better than General Marty Dempsey, who was a solid and courageous Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and who urged his civilian bosses to make a more robust response to events in Syria – a recommendation that might have saved thousands of lives, had it been followed. Yet Dempsey possesses a self-effacing demeanor and humor, which makes him seem all the more approachable – particularly after witnessing his penchant to wrap up public events by crooning Irish ballads.

Some critics will say that boosting a former military officer for the highest political positions somehow runs counter to the American tradition of civilian control of the government. But these people have learned critical skills while in uniform – skills unrelated to warfighting – that are in desperate need in political office.  And in the past, former general officers like Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower have proven to be more than capable civilian leaders after hanging up their uniforms.  Perhaps one of the most impressive military officers of the modern era did just that.  And imagine what a different condition we would have today had Colin Powell run for President. 

I am not campaigning for the selection of any of these gentlemen for high office at the moment.  But I am suggesting that as our political parties wrestle with the prospects of nominating individuals with sky-high negatives, questionable leadership and ethical records, and penchants for saying and doing anything necessary to get elected, the presumptive nominees might benefit in casting their gaze more broadly toward proven military leaders, who might prompt the public to give the respective tickets another look.  Either way, such a move would offer fresh hope for the future.   

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