McRaven’s Rousing Protest: Are Civil-Military and Democratic Norms in Tension?


President Donald Trump withdrawing the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan has set off a cascade of former professionals from the military and intelligence community condemning the president’s public and very personal involvement in such a decision. Such active politicking further erodes the norm for veterans of both military and intelligence service to eschew politicking so that neither elected officials nor the public consider the active service to behave in political ways. Transgressors of the norm, retired Adm. Bill McRaven among them, argue the political urgency of the moment in their defense. As Radha Iyengar Plumb summarized it, McRaven is violating the norm of civil-military behavior in order to preserve the much more significant norms of our democracy Trump has violated.

John Brennan makes an awkward martyr for this case. He has long played both sides of the line: wanting the patina of being beyond politics because of his service in the intelligence community, yet using that stature to advance his politics. He was an Obama campaign surrogate in 2008 and did his job as CIA director in a sharply political way, misleading Congress about CIA staff actions and preserving executive privilege during President Barack Obama’s tenure but darkly warning about the need to circumscribe it for future presidents. So, I wouldn’t go as far as McRaven did in his defense of Brennan’s integrity.

The political people around the president weren’t wrong to be fuming about Brennan’s prior criticism, either. To call for a president’s impeachment while trading on access to government information does seem to be having one’s cake and sending the bill to the president you’re infamizing. It is the job of White House staffers to determine what the president’s statutory obligations are, where he has Constitutional and legal latitude to act, and to find ways to advance the president’s political agenda within those constraints. The executive branch does have the legal authority to deny security clearances on a wide latitude of grounds. Brennan has been vituperatively criticizing Trump and strongly suggesting he utilized illegal Russian support to manipulate the electoral outcome.

McRaven’s condemnation went well beyond the strictures of denying a former CIA director continued access to classified information. In comparing the president to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and criticizing Trump’s moral example — “you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage” — McRaven crossed an important line from making a national security case, on which his expertise is deeper and more significant than most, to a political one on which for civil-military purposes, he ought to be treated as any other voter.

But, of course, we do not treat retired military leaders as if they were any other voter. Forty-five years into an all-volunteer military, we treat our veterans with an outsized deference that borders on dangerous for a republic. McRaven is trading on his stature as a widely respected military leader to persuade our public that the president is a genuine danger to our civic life.  McRaven is not a political partisan — he was senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council Staff of George W. Bush (where I worked with him). He is not endorsing a political candidate or advocating a specific political platform. That he is making such a brazenly political argument suggests a cri de coeur, an appeal to conscience utilizing whatever public stature he may have to stand sentinel at a dangerous time for our republic.

All of which is simply to say that we are in a time of political upheaval, when norms long respected in our civic and political life are changing in uncomfortable ways. Yet as George Eliot taught us, “The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men.” Brennan is not a perfect man, nor is McRaven. Both are normalizing political behavior from national security professionals, as did retired generals Mike Flynn and John Allen during the election.

But let’s not forget the first-movers. On civil-military issues, and the norms of democratic practice in our country more broadly, the initial — and egregious — infractions have been by Trump and his coterie, inside government and out.

The optimal check on norm-violating behavior would be from the president’s cabinet and his own political party in the Congress. For example, the secretary of defense ought to have precluded the president signing the initial travel ban in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon in January of 2017. The national security advisor — then an active-duty military officer — ought to have prevented the vice president from making overtly political comments in his commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy. Many others ought to fall on their swords to prevent the president normalizing political speeches to military audiences. But they have not.

Sometimes the straw that breaks the camel’s back seems inconsequential, hence the saying. It comes after a number of other straws, and those grievances condition understanding of the context in which violations are cumulative. That is what we may be seeing with Brennan, McRaven, and the panoply of former CIA directors lining up against a sitting president. They are violating comfortable norms, yet it matters that so many across both political parties are willing to defend imperfect individuals because they conclude President Donald Trump is a danger to American democracy.

The proper civil-military reaction from the president’s men would be to say that citizen McRaven is entitled to his opinion. That is what President George W. Bush did when prominent veterans like retired Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold criticized the Iraq war and called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation in 2006. But maybe the reason Bill McRaven’s cri de coeur is so powerful is that this president and his men cannot restrain their authoritarian impulse to use the levers of government to punish their enemies. Which is exactly what Bill McRaven was cautioning us about.


Kori Schake is the Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.