There is an element of politics embedded in policy, no getting around it. That is, at least since Andrew Jackson, how democracy works. Presidents have a constitutional right to appoint their choices to top posts – subject to Senate confirmation. More often than not, those choices come from the president’s own party. However, this does not mean that top policy makers, from an Attorney General to a Secretary of the Navy, are then duly entitled to politicize their jobs. Unfortunately, the Secretary of the Navy seems to have missed that point.
High level appointees are not expected or allowed to blatantly politicize, that is, bend to their personal or party will – or otherwise reinterpret – established laws, prevailing regulations, or longstanding practices of those institutions entrusted to their care. Put differently, executive appointees swear an oath to the US Constitution, not to any politician or political party.
They are not invited into the wheelhouse of leadership to run the ship aground, or take it off course. They are not owners, but stewards of the future. In a sense, they are like doctors, expected to do no harm, and should held to account if they act outside their oath. It is inappropriate for a Secretary of the Navy to use his position to tip constitutional duties toward party, political agenda, or personal whim. That is not his job, not what he was confirmed for, and not what those being led deserve.
Yet … by appearance, since becoming Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus has done precisely this. In aggregate, his decisions have been willfully and transparently political. They have undermined years of Navy tradition, policy, practice, and history – in some cases, hundreds of years. The result has been a hemorrhaging of trust in leadership, a sense of disconnection between civilian leaders and uniformed personnel, and a body blow to morale. The whole approach raises questions of motivation, judgement and perspective, if not about how he interprets the oath.
Let’s get specific. Consider facts that baffle and infuriate, dismay and discourage duty-bound personnel. Ask, as you read these facts, if they do not fly in the face of sound, inspiring leadership. Taken together, they should send a clear signal to President-elect Donald Trump about the kind of leaders that belong at the Pentagon, and leading the US Navy. Morale, based on listening and leading, matters. People always matter more than gold stars for political correctness or party. Morale is especially important in the Navy, where risks are inherently real and our national security depends on those who serve.
Here is the main point: Whatever President-elect Trump does from now forward, he must assure institutions as important as the Navy are not politicized, do not promote indefensible political preferences, prejudices, favorites, progressivism, or personal objectives. He must assure that these institutions are not used as laboratories for social experimentation. Our national security is too precious. And the stack has gotten tall. Since becoming Secretary of the Navy, Mabus has undertaken acts that no prior Secretary of the Navy ever counseled, and no future Secretary ever should. Here are a few.
Political ship naming. Throwing away ship-naming convention, this Secretary named a U.S. warship after Democrat Congressman John Murtha, an appropriator who gave money to the Pentagon, was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the FBI’s “Abscam” investigation, and on whom public corruption questions still circulate. The move was flagrantly political. It was compounded by naming another ship after Mexican-American political activist, Cesar Chavez, who disdained the Navy. Then a combat ship for former Democrat Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, icon of gun control. This year, ships for Democrat Congressman John Lewis, and Democrat gay rights activist Harvey Milk. This Secretary chose party over Navy.
Social engineering. Taking from George Orwell, he unilaterally ended the longstanding suffix “-man” on all Navy ratings, some dating to the American Revolution, and led a public relations policy focused on “gender-neutralizing.” Public discussion shifted from big issues – readiness, procurement reform, timely ship delivery, ship capability, cyber-security and re-grounding Navy morale – to fringe fancies, such as “transgender” training and bathrooms, sex changes and overruling US Marine Corps advice for headlines.
Whatever the merits of generating controversial press, and they seem few, the adverse impact on Navy warfighting, from reach and readiness to resolve and respect, is inordinately high. The trade-off is dangerous. Using the United States Navy as a megaphone for political correctness contravenes expectations of those who signed up, and politicizes the service.
Green versus red. Making a mockery of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” which sailed the globe to reassure allies, this Secretary launched the “Great Green Fleet” in 2012, mandating 50 percent reliance on “alternative energy” by 2020. While progress toward renewables may have value, making the Navy vicar for another international public relations effort tied to “climate change” is wrong-headed. The US Navy is a fighting force, not a floating billboard for political causes. TR sent the “Great White Fleet” for deterrence, not to sell soap.
Second, operational efficiency – getting to places on time, with maximum maneuverability, long legs and right firepower – should be paramount. Third, distractions have costs; if being green takes priority over readiness, reach, and warfighting, we may find the cost is red – and not acceptable.
Maternity leave uber alles. In June of 2015, female sailors were entitled to six weeks of paid maternity leave. Today, they are entitled to twice that. Between those two dates, the Secretary of the Navy unilaterally upped maternity leave from six to 18 weeks, tripling expectations of Navy families to 4.5 months, eventually producing reversal by the Secretary of Defense. What is the issue? Judgment, raising and dashing expectations, balancing equities with foresight, readiness and warfighting, unit cohesion and unbroken career advancement versus a “feel good” proclamation “to make the Navy more like Google.” Family bonds are vital, but sailors did not sign up for “Google.” They signed up to be a fighting force for America. A Secretary owes his people respect, not promises he cannot keep.
Perhaps all this is not surprising. The Secretary served from 1970 to 1972, a time of national distress and low morale, probably also in the Navy. The ship to which he was attached reportedly spent much time in dry dock. The President who appointed him promoted these same ideas. But circles close; what goes around comes around. Tradition matters, along with the US Constitution and duties assumed by those who take the oath.
While change is not inherently bad, it can be misplaced. When a service leader takes decisions that are highly political, unjustified by history or constitutional oath, which smack of partisanship and disdain tradition, which show indifference to the People he serves; when the effect of those decisions is to undermine cohesion, respect for leadership, expectations of sailors, and to dishonor the past, something has gone badly wrong.
The mandate now, for President-elect Trump, is to look that problem straight on – and put it right. The United States Navy has been through too much, represents too much sacrifice and honor, embodies too much commitment to good and non-partisan America, to allow partisanship and political correctness to infect this high calling – or the people, at heart, who are the U.S. Navy.
Robert Charles is a former US Navy Intelligence Officer (USNR), who served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, led congressional oversight investigations of the Defense Department 1995-1999, is a former litigator and served as Assistant Secretary of State under George W Bush and Colin Powell. He writes widely on national security and legal issues.