John Bolton’s abrupt departure as national security adviser to President Donald Trump is only the latest sudden exit from a top job in this troubled administration. The White House is the center of the turmoil, but for that reason, the instability reverberates widely and powerfully throughout Washington, the federal government and the nation at large.
The imagery of the United States government as a “ship of state” is historically rooted in ways that speak directly to contemporary times, including the exceptionally turbulent White House. The captain of even a small ship cannot afford constantly to change direction. Staying on course is crucial. Serious storms are a danger, but can often be avoided or deflected. This is true in politics as in seamanship.
Bolton may have been fired or he may have initially offered to resign, as he testifies. This event is only the latest sudden change in what is now a non-stop merry-go-round of senior officials coming and then going, often very quickly.
The latest D.C. tempest provides an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the event. More important is long-term lack of consistent trends in policy in this administration, given the now undeniably ceaselessly erratic course.
In this context, there has been relative stability at the Central Intelligence Agency, a particularly influential player among our multiple federal intelligence agencies. Mike Pompeo joined the current administration as CIA director, and then became secretary of state in April 2018.
Gina Haspel, his successor at CIA, is the first female director and a career professional. Both qualities are major strengths, professionally and politically.
In the current environment, a military officer would be a good choice for national security adviser. Pompeo is a former Army officer and West Point graduate. (Trump’s pick, Robert C. O’Brien, served as a major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Army Reserve.)
Gens. Colin Powell (Reagan administration) and Brent Scowcroft (Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations) were successful in the difficult job. Effective cooperation between civilian and military intelligence officials is essential. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s tenure under Trump ended because of poor personal chemistry.
Military officers have been vital to government leadership in U.S. intelligence and national security. At CIA, established in 1947, the first four directors were all senior military officers: Rear Adm. Sidney W. Souers, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith.
Smith was chief of staff for Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. As such, he was crucial in the most demanding and difficult military alliance in history.
During more recent decades, the U.S. paid a high price for alienation between civilian and military agencies. During the Vietnam War, there was general lack of communication between our military and CIA. The latter proved notably accurate — and prescient. Vietnam commander Gen. William Westmoreland, a man of great personal integrity, was so proudly positive about prosecution of the war that he unintentionally surrounded himself with yes-men. Irreverent — and well-informed — CIA pros were shunned. Military Intelligence officers literally were forbidden from talking to them. Late in that war, Congress acted to force cooperation.
Accurate intelligence and assessment remains essential to our safety and security. False intelligence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction led to the costly 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Effective coordination is essential at any time for successful defense of our nation, but arguably, today the challenges are especially complex and subtle. General war with one or more other great powers is relatively unlikely, thanks in part to the presence of nuclear weapons, but by no means impossible.
The more direct threats of terrorist and non-state armed groups are an unavoidable fact today. Countering and defeating them entails special challenges.
Eisenhower stated that a “strange sort of genius” is required to excel at intelligence. Military service is similar in terms of tasks and challenges, including combat and noncombat realms.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.”