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On Courage, Confidentiality and the Chain of Command in the Trump era

The wall between domestic political considerations and the conduct of foreign affairs is being eroded, which weakens our institutions.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
La exembajadora estadounidnese en Ucrania, Marie Yovanovitch. Crédito: AP

All members of the U.S. military and the career diplomatic corps swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” That includes political appointee ambassadors, and top echelon Cabinet officials. No one in government swears an oath to an individual.

Along with the acceptance of service in the executive branch comes a further pledge of confidentiality, i.e. to protect classified information and, while in service, to avoid commentary or behavior that might result in negative attention concerning the US government or its policies.

Aside from the shameful exception of Senator Joe McCarthy’s show hearings in the 1950s by the House 'UnAmerican Activities' Commission, the vast majority of bipartisan American foreign policy professionals, legislators, career and political appointees understood the ground rules.

In short, criminal, corrupt, or morally questionable behavior was cause for dismissal… and there was a big, beautiful wall between domestic political considerations and the conduct of foreign affairs. These rules worked well to protect American interests and our leadership around the globe. In the Trump era they are being eroded, which weakens our institutions.

Once out of office, former government officials are fully entitled to First Amendment rights and enjoy the protected freedom of speech that is sacrosanct for all citizens. In the past, with very few exceptions, they defended the policies they helped shape and implement, regardless of partisan considerations.

No one criticized a still sitting President, and career generals and ambassadors especially tended to eschew public debate altogether, believing partisanship the purview of others. This tendency was especially marked among military leaders.

Officials could fight for their views inside the policy development process, but publicly, you implemented the President’s final decisions. Period. Full stop.

If doing so contravened your morals, the path was clear: you resigned from service. While rare, that did occur, but what - in my 35 years of military and diplomatic experience - never occurred were reprisals from the White House against those who chose to stay and obey despite their previously expressed internal opposition to a policy decision of the President’s.

Today we know such reprisals do occur.

The House Impeachment inquiry into the Trump administration’s handling of Ukraine policy and the firing of Ambassador Yovanovitch afford just one view into this disgraceful rupture of longstanding public trust.

But perhaps more hopefully, the President’s erratic and dangerous foreign policy decision making, such as his abrupt abandonment of allied Kurdish fighters in Syria, is also changing how recently retired senior career officials are responding when out of service.

Americans should be proud of former State Department leaders such as William Burns, Roberta Jacobson, Nicholas Burns, Michael McKinley, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and literally dozens more who have written books, op-eds, testified and given interviews in which they have laid the blame for our current foreign policy failures where it belongs, at the President’s Desk.

In speaking truth to power, more courageous has been the testimony of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and other diplomats still on active duty.

Caught between conflicting orders from Secretary Pompeo and the White House not to testify and legally enforceable Congressional subpoenas to do so, they chose to bear witness to their oath of service by highlighting to a co-equal branch of government a clear domestic threat to U.S. interests abroad – our own Ukraine policy, which offered “pay to play” access to the Oval Office for that country’s new president in exchange for dirt on Joe Biden’s son.

But ex-diplomats will always play a supporting role to former uniformed leaders such as Admiral Bill McRaven, who famously oversaw the Special Forces raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. His scathing critique in The New York Times of President Trump’s willful ignorance about the fundamental realities of geo-strategic alliances and his betrayal of our Kurdish allies in Syria, stands out as the clearest indication yet that Trump’s own iconoclasm is changing how ex-career officials perceive their continuing duty as citizens beyond their retirement date.

Quoting another retired four-star general’s sentiments, McRaven wrote, “ I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic."

In slight contrast, former Trump Secretary of Defense James Mattis – call sign 'Chaos' - recently wrote a book on leadership without ever taking direct aim at the architect-in-chief of the chaos he sees in American diplomatic and defense policy.

At an annual dinner meant for lighthearted teasing of political figures, Mattis upped his rhetoric in veiled comedic jabs about the President without calling him what most suspect he believes – a domestic threat to America’s national security. Why does Mattis pull his punches? Surely this is not a laughing matter.

Similarly, H.R. McMaster, a former general and the third of four National Security Advisors (so far), famously authored Dereliction of Duty, an historical indictment of Vietnam-era top brass who tacitly allowed military strategy and tactics to be subjugated to President Johnson’s domestic political agenda.

McMaster recently said it is inappropriate for a President to solicit foreign influence in an election campaign but did not say whether he believed the President crossed that line with the new Ukrainian leader. Again, why is he stopping short?

His opinion is informed by firsthand experience. Then, there’s John Kelly. Unidentified former colleagues have told the media they heard the Marine general and ex-Trump Chief of Staff privately express horror at the President’s presiding over a White House dysfunction he allegedly described as “crazy town.” He has yet to confirm or deny it. Why?

Americans need to hear from these three men given their previous unique proximity to the commander-in-chief before he fired them. Once heralded as the “adults in the room,” they should follow McRaven’s lead, tell Americans clearly and directly if they consider the President himself a domestic threat to America, and they should do it soon.

It is not breathless hyperbole to suggest that history is waiting for them to do so… not to mention the American electorate.