Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Adm. Stavridis: Reading and the application of intellectual fire power is at least as important as real fire power. We are really good at launching missiles. We are also pretty capable in the US military of launching ideas.
Preet Bharara: That’s Admiral James Stavridis. He spent 37 years in the US Navy, earned four stars and served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Admiral Stavridis has had a varied and storied career from leading the US Southern Command in Miami to serving as the 16th Supreme Allied commander at NATO. He’s also a thoughtful and prolific speaker and writer combining his love of the maritime with his study of leadership and character development. His most recent book, “Sailing True North” dissects the characteristics of some of history’s greatest naval leaders. The Admiral joins me to talk about the implications of the Soleimani’s strike, what happens next with Iran, Trump’s approach to leadership and why NATO is most certainly not obsolete, but first let’s get to your questions. Stay tuned.
Madeline: Hi Preet. This is Madeline in Brooklyn calling with a question from my dad Matthew in Connecticut in explaining his defense of Trump. Alan Dershowitz says that foreign policy is exclusively the domain of the executive and that therefore what Trump did was not impeachable. In my opinion, what Trump was doing with Ukraine was not foreign policy but to take another example; what if Congress passed a law to provide funding to Cuba and Trump for real foreign policy reasons refused to send the funding? Would he be subject to impeachment for this? According to Dershowitz, he would not but it seems to me and my dad that foreign policy is really not exclusively presidential and not the violation of any law passed by Congress may subject a president to impeachment. We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this and we’d love the podcast. Thanks Preet.
Preet Bharara: Hi Madeline. Thanks for your call and your question though it appears to come from your father. I think your analysis is pretty good. Look, people will always argue and Democratic and Republican presidents have both argued in different contexts that foreign policy is within the domain of the executive branch and especially the president of the United States. That makes a lot of good sense. Now, most of the examples that are given by Alan Dershowitz don’t seem to take into account that a president of the United States may engage in something that looks like foreign policy but as you point out is really about himself, is really about self-dealing, which is what the whole Ukraine scandal was about.
Preet Bharara: The president of the United States was doing something for his own personal political benefit time and time again. The evidence that his intentions were all about self-regard comes from all manner of witnesses and documents. And the fact that the foreign policy establishment both within and without the White House and Congress were all arrayed against him on this issue of providing aid to Ukraine makes it clear that he had his own, not foreign policy objective but his own personal and private benefit that he was seeking.
Preet Bharara: For example, as Anne Milgram and I talk about in the Insider Podcast, one hypothetical provided by Alan Dershowitz relates to whether or not it is impeachable if the president of the United States simply allows Vladimir Putin to annex Alaska to Russia, which is a quite outrageous hypothetical and he does it for effect. According to Alan Dershowitz, because that’s in the province of foreign policy, the president couldn’t be impeached for it. That ignores a central issue that pertains in the Ukraine case as Anne pointed out in our conversation and that is unquestionably if the reason that Donald Trump allowed the annexation of Alaska for personal gain. In other words in exchange for the opening of a huge Trump tower in Moscow. For example, that’s self-dealing, that’s a high crime, I think, unquestionably and would subject the president to impeachment. One needs to be aware of hypotheticals that don’t incorporate into them the actual facts and intentions that the president had with respect to the Ukraine affair.
Preet Bharara: Now, I think separately, your hypothetical relating to Cuba is an interesting one, separate and apart from Donald Trump’s personal interest in withholding aid from Ukraine. We now have this general accounting office opinion that says Donald Trump broke the law with respect to not turning over the money that was allocated by Congress. Whether you’re talking about that issue in Ukraine or you’re talking about some other issue on which Donald Trump defies the law and defies Congress, I think you have an argument that that’s impeachable as well. Just to restate the obvious again, the most clearly impeachable offense is when the president of the United States corrupts his office, engages in what we have here, extortion/bribery, not proceeding in favor of the foreign policy of the United States.
Preet Bharara: This question comes from Twitter user [email protected] How is it that Lev Parnas is able to speak openly while out on bond without repercussions while Roger Stone had a gag order hashtag aspirate? Well, the answer to that is simply they have different judges and different judges in different circumstances depending on the nature of expected speech by a charge defendant will make different decisions about gag orders. Gag orders, by the way are fairly rare. They’re rare in part because most defendants listen to the counsel of their lawyer and most lawyers counsel their clients who are under federal indictment to keep their mouth shut and stay off the airwaves. I mean the large subset of defendants, nobody’s interested in hearing from them so they wouldn’t get national TV interviews anyway, but of the people that are they tend to keep quiet because most of the time it’s in your interest.
Preet Bharara: Now, it may be the case here that Lev Parnas is trying to show that he wants to be cooperative with the Senate and the trial and the house and that he’s able to be cooperative in a way that might influence the decision makers at the Southern District of New York to give him some benefit of leniency with respect to his criminal case. I don’t know if that will be successful or not. I tend to think it won’t be. The other differences Roger Stone, when he was exercising his right of free speech while he was under indictment was doing all sorts of things to affect his case by speaking negatively about the prosecutors and negatively about other folks, which I think the judge did not have any tolerance for. Roger Stone, more polemical, more obnoxious, harder judge, Lev Parnas so far able to speak his mind.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in a tweet from chicken bell. Hi chicken bell. Can justice Roberts veto any of McConnell’s rules? Well, it seems from what the rules are in the Senate that has stood for a couple of decades and then the new resolution on which we expect by the time this podcast drops. There will have been a vote and probably will pass without any amendments just as Roberts will have very little role. In fact, Mitch McConnell’s draft resolution doesn’t mention justice Roberts once. I don’t believe it makes clear that motions that are brought to the Senate for consideration whether relating to witnesses or evidence or anything else are brought to the Senate under it would be resolved by the Senate by a vote.
Preet Bharara: The longstanding rules of the Senate that have not been amended state that even if John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States makes a ruling with respect to some issue like evidence or a witness that that’s an initial ruling that itself can be. I guess vetoed or overruled by a majority vote of the Senate. There are some people who speculate that Justice Roberts may assert himself in some serious way and creates something of an impasse. I tend to doubt it. I don’t think he wants to, the rules don’t allow for it. Senate procedure doesn’t allow for it. As in the case of Justice Rehnquist back during the Clinton impeachment trial, it doesn’t seem to Justice Roberts is going to have a heavy hand in any of these proceedings at all.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Admiral James Stavridis. He’s a decorated US Naval officer who served to protect this country for over three decades including as NATO Supreme Allied commander. With a passion for international relations and reading, Admiral Stavridis has had an impressive career in academia which included becoming the 12th Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. In our conversation, the Admiral dispel some common misconceptions about the military, recounts a recent episode in the news that made him feel literally ill and outlines the essential qualities of leadership. He also explains why the Soleimani’s strike even if legally justified is a strategy that conflicts with American values. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Admiral James Stavridis, thank you so much for being on the show.
Adm. Stavridis: Pleasure to be with you, Preet.
Preet Bharara: I wanted to have a long chat with you for a long time and there are always things going on in the news about which you are expert and there seems to be a proliferation of such things in recent weeks. I’m particularly glad that you’re joining us. I thought we’d start not with the news, but with you and maybe you could explain to folks who may not be familiar. Why it is that a person like you decided to go into the military in the first place?
Adm. Stavridis: What a great question and thanks for having me on the podcast. For me, it was the family business Preet. My father was a career officer in the US Marine Corps and so early on I watched him. He was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Korea, he commanded a battalion of Marines in Vietnam and I just always had, like many of us do, just immense respect for my dad. Initially I thought, “Okay, I want to be just like my dad and be a Marine infantry officer.” I went off to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, which as you know, graduates both Marines and Navy officers. I went there for the first year very convinced I wanted to be that US Marine Corps where that snappy look in uniform. I was ready to go.
Adm. Stavridis: Then after my freshman year, we call it the plea beer at Annapolis. I was sent out to sea like a thousand of my classmates and for me when I got on that destroyer out of San Diego for summer training; we were headed into the sun setting out on the Pacific. I was like St. Paul on the road to Damascus creed. I just knew I wanted to be a sailor. I went home and explained it to my dad. He took it reasonably well and that led to 37 years in the US Navy.
Preet Bharara: What is it about being on the sea that was so compelling or appealing to you?
Adm. Stavridis: I’ll give you three things. I mentioned one already. It’s the ultimate office with a view. No matter what your rank or station on a US Navy warship, you can take a break from your desk on the interior of the ship and just walk out and look at that endless beautiful seascape in front of you. Number two, I think there is something deeply contemplates of about the oceans and it speaks to us, 70% of our bodies are water. We came from the sea literally in the evolutionary process and I think that when you’re at sea, you feel that connection.
Adm. Stavridis: When you look out onto the horizon where the sea and the sky come together and I used to ask myself, what am I looking at? What you’re looking at is eternity and it helps you keep things in perspective. Third, I know like me you’re a reader, there’s time to read. There is a lot of distraction goes away. You get very focused when you’re standing watch, you’re very busy conducting operations, but there’s still plenty of time for that contemplation and above all to read. My lifelong love of reading came out of those long, long sea voyages that I took.
Preet Bharara: I read that you once tabulated the total length of time that you have spent at sea with no land in sight. We’ll get into if you want the obsessive nature of your personality that caused you to do the calculation. According to your math, you’ve spent nine and a half years total at sea. How much Dramamine is that?
Adm. Stavridis: For me, a little bit when I got started and then gradually your inner ear is just destroyed. Although some famous admirals in a military history like Lord Nelson for example, the great British admiral perhaps the greatest admiral in history, Victor and The Battle of Trafalgar defeated Napoleon’s fleet and the Spanish fleet combined. He got violently seasick his entire life, so fair amount of Dramamine. Yes, I spent nine-and-a-half years on the deep ocean out of sight of land. Just to put it in perspective, I think most folks go out on a cruise for four or five days every year to think about nine-and-a-half year’s total. It’s a lot of time, a lot of books, maybe not so much Dramamine but a fair drama, various operations around the world.
Preet Bharara: You’ve mentioned reading a couple of times already and one thing that is endlessly fascinating to me and I think is worth enlightening people on is what the proper background qualities that are necessary in the military leader in generals and admirals like yourself.
Preet Bharara: I want to read to you something that you wrote that brings in the current president of the United States. Also, I think goes to a misperception that a lot of people have and you yourself, you have a Ph.D. You’ve written eight books and as I mentioned you like to refer to reading and you think that’s an important part of not just life as a growing curious person in the world, but also part of what makes you a successful military person. You wrote once, “What attracted Trump to generals in the first place. It seems he was attracted to the macho, direct, domineering profile that many civilians associate with generals like Jack Nichols portrayal of a Marine and a few good men.” Then you write, “But it has likely dawned on Trump that generals are more cerebral than he ever would have guessed. Have a pesky habit of quietly judging him in ways that got under his skin are more intellectual planners than operational Rambos.”
Preet Bharara: Talk about the misperception people have and the importance of education, reading and intellect on the part of our military leaders.
Adm. Stavridis: Yeah. Let’s start with the Navy SEALs and I think most people would have this view that SEALs are commandos, who are Rambo-like who are constantly grabbing their guns and putting red dots on people’s foreheads with a laser range finders. That’s really not what SEALs are like. They can do that. Believe me, they can do that. They can be incredibly lethal obviously, but I’ve always found our special forces not just the SEALs but our Green Berets and others are planners. They think through what could happen on this mission and they meticulously construct plans. When I was commander of us Southern Command, I had to bring a special forces down for a hostage rescue operation and they spent six weeks building a scale model of the camp that they were going to intrude upon and try and rescue hostages.
Adm. Stavridis: They made little mini models of it. Then they made a full scale model. Then they practiced and practiced and rehearsed. They don’t always have that luxury and they can certainly operate in a nanosecond to apply lethal force, but in general they’re thinkers, they’re planners, and I think that quality is resident in so much of the military. I think it is also a fundamental part of how our military educates itself through a reading, through study, through seminars. In the course of a typical 30-year career as a US military officer you’ll of course come out of a four-year university, but then you’ll go back to war college probably twice for a year at a time. You’ll take many seminars, you’ll be exposed to reading lists, reading and the application of intellectual fire power is at least as important as real fire power. Another way to put it, Preet is that we are really good at launching missiles. We are also pretty capable in the US military of launching ideas and I think that reading is pretty fundamental to that.
Preet Bharara: Why do you think there is this public perception that’s different about the macho, as you put it macho, direct, domineering profile? Is that because of the movies?
Adm. Stavridis: I think it is, and I really think it’s the movies more than the books. If you read Grant’s memoirs from the Civil War, if you look at the extraordinary novel “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara about the generals in the Civil War including Grant, but really the generals who were at the Battle of Gettysburg. If you read a Steven Pressfield’s gorgeous novel “Gates of Fire” about the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Both memoir and fiction have a way of portraying our warriors accurately. Hollywood, not so much. I’d be hard pressed to think of a movie that really shows you that contemplative side of the military mind.
Preet Bharara: Well, Hollywood likes to show things blowing up because that’s what captures our attention in the post MTV generation. What’s the path to advancement within the military? What are the qualities that cause people to say, “Well, this is a person who needs to have more responsibility because you had a pretty amazing path within the armed forces.”
Adm. Stavridis: It starts with an operational competence. In the case of myself as a Navy surface warfare officer, in other words someone who drives destroyers, cruisers. Our surface ships, it starts off with being a mariner, understanding the oceans, how to drive the ship, how to read the weather. Second initial operational competence is leading young men and women. When you come out of Annapolis, you’re almost immediately what’s called a division officer. You’re in charge of 30 typically young sailors on a ship and so you’re thrown immediately into this cauldron of leadership. Now you’ll have a chief petty officer alongside you, someone with much more experience who nominally is working for you but in reality is helping the ensign learn the ropes. Which by the way is a nautical expression that goes back to the days of sailing ships when you literally learned which ropes to climb, which ropes to pull on.
Adm. Stavridis: Operational competence both in the context of Marine operations in the Navy flight, in the air force infantry type operations in the army and the Marine Corps, and alongside that Preet, that core leadership set all of that takes about five years before you’re really a seasoned commissioned officer. At that stage, the services begin to sort of separate the wheat from the chaff and now that services are beginning to look for people who have a hunger for a broader horizon. Those are the folks who are typically chosen and sent to graduate schools. I was lucky enough to be sent off to Tufts University, to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, or the Navy financed me for a Ph.D. Others go to a wide variety of schools all across the country.
Adm. Stavridis: That gift of time of two years out of your career at the five-year point helps the young officer build intellectual firepower, intellectual capital. Then you come back and now you’re in a mid-management tier, so you go back to the ship. Now you have 150 people working for you. Now’s when you really learn the warfighting skills, how to launch the missiles, how to find the submarine at sea and destroy it, how to operate the radar system. Now you’re about eight years in and now are when you go to the Pentagon, you begin the tours as a strategic planner. You take all that baseline knowledge that you’ve built in and you start putting it to work back at corporate headquarters if you will. That becomes another place where the talent pool is surveyed and moved forward. I’ll stipulate in my case, I’m sure it was a whole series of computer errors that led to my advancement, but-
Preet Bharara: I doubt that.
Adm. Stavridis: I assure you there are in fact pretty good filters along the way. Like any system, it’s not perfect and you’re dealing with a huge number of officers. I would say by the end of that pipeline, when you’ve created these admirals and generals who are literally one in a thousand from the beginning, tranche of people who come in. These are pretty terrific women and men who have both the operational skills, the leadership skills and the intellectual fire power plus all the experiences both at sea in the case of the Navy and ashore.
Preet Bharara: I want to jump back to the present day for a moment and go back to this relationship between the sitting President Donald Trump and military leaders, specifically generals. Now there’s a new book that I’m sure you’ve heard about by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post and there’s an excerpt in it. I think today’s Washington Post, and we’re recording this on Friday, January 17th and it depicts a stunning scene of the president United States going to get a briefing at the Pentagon and it’s something along the lines of a tutorial that various military leaders were going to give him. Cabinet secretaries were there including the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the vice president. It culminates in according to the reporting a tirade by the president against the generals, among others in the room in which he, among other things says, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people” and then says, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies,” which didn’t go over well in the room. Have you seen that and do you have a reaction to that?
Adm. Stavridis: I have and I am stunned and unfortunately I have heard various versions of that from several people who were in the room. By all accounts, it’s accurate. I can’t swear to the precise words that were used but certainly a variety of versions of it have actually already been out in the public eye in a couple of different books but this is the first one I think that lays it out in such vivid terms. Stunned and really shocked particularly from President Trump and let’s be candid here. He’s in a room with my contemporaries including for example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford. Joe Dunford served under my command in Afghanistan as a four-star Marine general. His nickname in the Corps is Fighting Joe because of his combat attributes earned all around the world but most recently in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Adm. Stavridis: Joe, by the way Preet is also a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and as someone who is quite adept not only at launching missile if you will, but also launching ideas. He’s also soft spoken, utterly respectful of others whether they are the most junior person in the room or the most senior person in the room. For someone like President Trump who obtained a medical deferment for bone spurs under what has been widely reported to be questionable circumstances. To call someone like Joe Dunford, a baby or a loser or a dope is just a staggering act of both personal discourtesy but also professional malfeasance on the part of a president and you have to think about our presidents and their relationships with the military. Let me say this, I worked directly for President Bush, a Republican and President Obama, a Democrat as a four-star military officer directly through the secretary of defense, of course.
Adm. Stavridis: When I was a combatant commander; worked for President Bush as combatant commander for US Southern Command, everything south of the United States on military activity and worked for President Obama for four years as Supreme Allied commander and commander US European Command. President Bush and President Obama are very different people. Newsflash, very politically different but let me tell you two things, they had an absolute accord. Both of them were deeply respectful of the military. Both of them had positive, thoughtful relationships with their admirals and generals. Both were the leaders in the room and when a decision was made, we moved out on it even if we didn’t agree with every bit of it. I think of all my times around those two presidents in the situation room, in the Tank, in the Pentagon, in the field with both of them, at NATO summits with President Obama. In every interaction I ever had was positive, respectful, and also was crucial to maintaining civilian controlled military.
Adm. Stavridis: To have a scene like that reported I think again is not only personal discourtesy at a level that it’s hard for me to imagine. I think its professional malfeasance and that it breaks down those bonds and those relationships that are crucial and that helped maintained civilian control of the military. I’ll close on this Preet by saying and also reported in that story and I’ve heard it from others that day that secretary of state, Tillerson, not a veteran, although a son of veterans stood up and stood in the glare of the president and pushed back on the president’s commentary. I think those of us in the military were very grateful for Secretary Tillerson’s response in that circumstance.
Preet Bharara: If you had been in that room, what do you think you would’ve done in reaction?
Adm. Stavridis: It’s hard to say. It’s tempting to say something like, “Oh, I would have stood up and pushed back on the president and said, how dare you, Mr. President.” I doubt I would have done that, Preet.
Preet Bharara: That’s now your training, right?
Adm. Stavridis: It is not. It is not. Your training every fiber of your military being is saying to you, “Be quiet get through this, get out of the room and think about this before you do something precipitate.” I think that’s what all of the military people in the room are doing and here I suspect would have to include General Jim Mattis. I say deliberately General Jim Mattis not secretary of defense Jim Mattis because I think fundamentally Jim Mattis, whom I know very well and have a lot of friendship and respect for he spent a lifetime in uniform about 37 to 40 years as I did. I think I understand his reactions and I suppose that’s why someone like Secretary Tillerson would have felt more free to step up and speak his mind in that circumstance. Again, Preet this gets back to my point when the president indulges himself in his temper in a tirade like that. It really phrases the bonds of civilian control, the military because it shapes the view of the president in the minds of his commanders in ways that are not helpful as the country potentially heads into crisis or war.
Preet Bharara: There’s something I wonder about with respect to the challenges of dealing with this particular president with his particular personality and much of it is highlighted by what you just said and that is, “I understand and respect traditions and norms that generals may have abided by” like you described “respectful response to the commander in chief.” Another norm that seems to be observed by General Mattis and others they say is that they keep generally quiet about things that they may have disagreed with even when they leave military service. Which may be all well and good but when the president himself is such a determined norm breaker and engages in the conduct we just heard about in the Tank. Does that change the equation and in your mind, should people like General Mattis now say more and is there some service to be done by more speaking out and not engaging in the same kind of deference and reticence that we’ve seen in the past?
Adm. Stavridis: I think there is and first of all, two very different things. One is should you push back and become disrespectful yourself and shout back at a president. I don’t think so. I don’t think that is helpful in any context. Once you are out of uniform, I see no problem with senior military officers commenting, particularly on matters of policy. Preet, as you know on the chief international analyst for NBC News and I spend a lot of time commenting on policy, commenting on the wisdom or lack thereof of decisions that are made.
Adm. Stavridis: I think what’s important is that the individuals who are willing to do that. Who had the experience that I’m lucky enough to have keep it out of the venue of domestic politics but keep it based in fact, based in expert opinion, based in commentary on policy, call them as you see them. Don’t avoid saying the White House is doing something that makes sense. On the other hand, feel free if something is being done that makes no sense to go ahead and use your experience and your commentary in order to help shape where you think the nation should go. I have no problem with that.
Preet Bharara: I want to talk about events in Iran and Iraq from recent times that I know you’ve commented on, so everyone appreciates that around the turn of the year. There were aggressive actions taken against Americans. A contractor was killed and there was a move on the embassy in Baghdad and as often happens. I’m sure you’ve done this many, many, many times, you’re part of a team that presents options for the president to respond in some way. If you had been in the loop and in the mix on this occasion, would you have seen fit to include as one of the options, the killing of General Soleimani?
Adm. Stavridis: Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I would say I probably would not have included that as an option and I’ll tell you why. I think that there is a strong case to be made in taking out General Soleimani particularly if you had valid intelligence that he was in the process of setting up in the immediate future attacks against American citizens. If that evidence was available, then yes I would have included it. If this was a list of strategic options for the president, I would not have included it. Let me unpackage that in another sentence or two. Again, taking Soleimani off the chess board is a net plus tactically for the United States. It takes a real capability away from the Iranian, particularly revolutionary guards and it is something that is without question going to diminish the ability of the Iranians to think coherently about how to pull together all the various activities they are conducting in the Middle East because he really was the genius of that.
Preet Bharara: You often think leaders come and go and there are always deputies who step in. He was so special that it dealt them a real significant meaningful blow just to remove him?
Adm. Stavridis: Yes, without question. I base that on a decade of tracking General Soleimani through intelligence reports. I’ve struggled trying to give Americans a counterpoint here and the best one I can come up with is Eisenhower. He was an Eisenhower-like figure in terms of his strategic and tactical view of the battlefield, his prominence of the affection Americans had for Eisenhower. Iranians had a deep affection for General Soleimani. We may not like that but those are facts.
Preet Bharara: But that’s not what some people in the administration are saying. I’ve heard a lot of people in the administration say lots and lots of Iranians are happy thought of Soleimani as a killer and so this view that you’ve stated, they say is not widely shared. What do you make of that?
Adm. Stavridis: I don’t know who is providing you that. I will say this. Certainly the opposition within Iran is not unhappy about the departure of Soleimani, but even inside Iran, that’s not where Soleimani was focused in his operational context, Preet. He was very much Mr. Outside. Inside, he had real political aspirations and without question, he was fully aligned with the Supreme leader and the mullahs. Therefore, from an inside perspective, the opposition in Iran is not unhappy to see his departure. By and large across the nation, there was deep real affection for him and Exhibit A would be the crowds who turned out when he was … His body was brought back and you see numbers as high as 3 million. Iran has a population about 80 million, so population adjusted basis multiply by four, that would be a funeral where say 10 million Americans turned out. Those are not rent crowds.
Adm. Stavridis: From everything I could see from the intelligence I’m aware of from the conversations I’m having with a long-term Iran observers. There was real affection for Soleimani and therefore back to where we started this. I think it is a significant move off the chessboard. Here’s the real point, that move was taken without any thought as far as I can see about what stuff’s strategy and in keeping with chess as an analogy, chess being a game the Iranians didn’t quite invent but certainly perfected. There is no further set of moves on the board. The administration as it often does, did something unpredictable and impulsive without a theory of the case as to how to move forward. That’s my objection to the killing of Soleimani.
Preet Bharara: Strategic isn’t one of the strategic justifications that is now being articulated that it’s part of a theory of deterrence and so it’s not just to disrupt with respect to some imminent threat. However you define eminence but also now they know and not just they but the Koreans, the North Koreans and others know that the United States is prepared to take the very decisive and serious and unexpected action up to and including the targeted killing of someone who is one of the top one, two or three leaders of a country and that will cause everyone to think twice. Is that a strategy or not?
Adm. Stavridis: I don’t think so and certainly it’s not a strategy that I would want to see the United States of America sign up to. Our use of lethal force is strictly circumscribed in international law and my reading of the situation is that the best argument the administration has is the hostile act, imminent threat argument, the idea that we can kill other leaders in an act of deterrence. I don’t think passes muster with international law. From my own personal perspective, it feels to me like a violation of our own principles.
Preet Bharara: What happens next with Iran?
Adm. Stavridis: In some tragic kind of way, we’re essentially right back where we started as follows, Soleimani is off the chessboard. The tragedy is the destruction of this airliner, Ukrainian airliner within us and people on it. The Iranians have launched some ballistic missiles in my view, somewhat halfhearted effort to show publicly that they can respond. Now where I think we are is a continuation of this shadow war that’s been going on. Some would say for half a decade but most recently a beginning about six months ago and the Iranians started to escalate taking out a US drone, attacking tankers in the Gulf, confiscating a British tanker, attacking the Saudi oil fields, cyber-attacks against Saudis and Israelis. That campaign started about six, seven months ago. I think we’re going to go right back to that, Preet. In a way to think of it is the administration has been conducting what it calls the maximum pressure campaign.
Adm. Stavridis: Get out of the nuclear deal, put all the economic sanctions back into play, maximum pressure all around. The Iranians have responded with what I called the maximum disruption campaign. That’s the card that they have to play. They can be highly disruptive. They can threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. They can inflict real pain on the international economy. They are going to continue to play that so I’ll give you three things to watch for. One is a more significant cyber-attack from Iran. Another would be more of these maritime episodes on the Arabian Gulf. I think that’s a card they would be willing to play in. The third would be proxy actions not against us forces but against a Saudi Arabia or Israel who I think will be the next targets in this series of disruptive acts.
Preet Bharara: Can we move on to NATO, of which you were Supreme Allied commander as you mentioned which was basically the coolest title in the world.
Adm. Stavridis: I keep trying to get my wife to call me Supremo at home but it’s not working.
Preet Bharara: I was telling somebody that I was interviewing you this week and mentioned your many titles and then in saying it back to me, they misspoke and called you the Supreme leader. I said, “No, that’s a different job.” You never got that job. I imagined that you … This is a very softball question. I imagine that you would disagree with those who have said, including I believe, the president or the current president. You would disagree with the people who say that NATO was obsolete. Correct?
Adm. Stavridis: I would. To me the proof is right there in front of us. NATO’s engaged. Let’s just take the four years I was Supreme Allied commander of NATO. We had 150,000 NATO troops, about 100,000 US, 50,000 rests of NATO troops in Afghanistan. We conducted major military campaigns in Libya. We had 15,000 troops in the Balkans helping maintain somewhat shaky piece there. We had thousands of troops and sailors on ships off the coast of East Africa doing piracy. We had a robust defensive cyber operations. We were deterring Russia and dealing with Russian activities in the Arctic. NATO is highly engaged globally and you can argue with some of those missions or all of them I suppose. I think first and foremost, operationally the proof is in the pudding. Second point, NATO’s favor is the sheer military power of the Alliance. It’s got a military budget collectively of $900 billion. Just to put that in perspective. By the way, China’s military budget is about 200 billion and Russia’s is down to about 60 billion. Oh, by the way, those “free loading Europeans”, collectively they have the second largest defense budget in the world, about 300 billion.
Adm. Stavridis: It’s more than China and Russia combined. Should they pay their 2% like the president says? Absolutely and I agree with him to wrap them on the knuckles and keep pushing them. When you look at all that military capability, our work together on missions around the world and I’ll close because I mentioned that treasurer a minute ago. Let me mention the blood, in blood and treasure. In Afghanistan, I signed 2,100 letters of condolence to the families of young men and women who died under my command in that mission in Afghanistan, almost a thousand of those letters. 900 of them went to Europeans. They’ve been with us and the only time we’ve activated article five and attack on one is an attack on all was after 9/11 that’s why they came to Afghanistan with us because we were attacked from Afghanistan, so bottom line no I don’t think the Alliance is obsolete.
Preet Bharara: Why do you think the president seems to show such disrespect for NATO? Do you think it’s really about the money? Because going back to this report that we were discussing with respect to Rex Tillerson in the room at the Tank, another feature of the narrative is that one of the things the president got upset about repeatedly during this briefing was how little other people pay for bases and other things. He would complain, how come we didn’t take a lot of oil given all the things we’ve done in the Middle East. Do you think it comes down to money for him?
Adm. Stavridis: I 100% do and you know that’s where all the creatures of our own background, our upbringing and our experiences. He’s a real estate business man who has pretty sharp elbows in the business world by all accounts and is someone who has that New York sensibility that says, “You know, kind of look a little suspiciously on others and what have you done for me lately?” When you put that together with a simplistic frame of mind about militaries I can see if I put myself in his shoes and in that frame, I can see why he would ask the question, “Why do we have all these troops for? Why do we pay for troops in Korea when Korea has the 13th largest economy in the world? Why do we still have 50,000 troops in Europe when the European economy is larger than our own economy?”
Adm. Stavridis: I think those are good questions but I also think there are really good answers to those questions along the lines of what was attempted to be explained to the president in that aforementioned Tank briefing was what do we get out of this and what we get out of this is this global network of allies, partners and friends who stand with us when we want to achieve our international objectives. That I think is worth a lot. Now, could we encourage our wealthier allies to spend more? Sure and we should. We’re renegotiating with Japan and South Korea right now and we’re pushing the Europeans to get to 2% all that is good, but we shouldn’t denigrate, we shouldn’t act as though our military, our mercenaries who are for hire out there.
Preet Bharara: Is NATO as strong as it’s ever been? Notwithstanding the rhetoric from the president, do we overstate sometimes the words that come out of the president’s mouth and is it just something that people can shake their heads at and leaders in other countries can shake their heads at, but it doesn’t really affect the viability and strength of NATO or is it something more?
Adm. Stavridis: I’ll give you two ways to think about it, good news and the bad news. The good news again, capability wise unmatched in human history, GOAT, greatest of all time 900 billion in defense spending. As I said a moment ago, 3 million men and women under arms, almost all volunteers, 18,000 combat aircraft, 800 oceans going warships, its own fleet of AWAC surveillance ships, its own fleet of global Hawk drones, unmatched capability, triple that of Russia and China combined. Those are just facts. Here’s the bad news. The center of gravity, Clausewitz the great military strategist said the center of gravity is that upon which all else revolves.
Adm. Stavridis: The center of gravity of NATO is its political will. It is the sense of the now 29 nations coming together to use all that capability. Deterrence creed is capability plus credibility. What I fear is that the president’s comments have an ongoing corrosive effect on that center of gravity, that political will, and it’s going to be challenged in 2020 by Iran and how the West. If you will, the United States plus our NATO allies and our other allies deal with Iran and it’s hard to go to that well of support if you’ve poured venom into those pipes and that is what concerns me.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that we in the United States obsess about the challenges of the Middle East at the expense of thinking about the challenges presented by China?
Adm. Stavridis: I do, however that does not mean that we ought to or really can simply walk away from the Middle East. I think as we balance, and this of course was something President Obama believed in was rebalancing our attention to the Pacific. I would actually say to the Indo-Pacific because I think we spend a lot of time talking about China and we should, but 300 years from now in the history of this century is written. I think it’s going to be more about the rise of India than the rise of China. In any event we had a rebalance, our focus somewhat from the Middle East toward China, India, the Indo-Pacific region for any number of demographic, economic and military reasons, last on in the Middle East.
Adm. Stavridis: We cannot forget our great ally partner and friend Israel is parked in the middle of this alongside other allies, partners and friends like Egypt, Jordan, Turkey. A NATO ally is really part of this. The Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and so on. We still have significant work to do there but the days of deploying 250,000 troops and spending a couple of trillion dollars, I think our past us nations are like people, they learn lessons. I think we’ve learned that lesson. What I fear is that we’ll overlearn the lesson and simply pull out of the region and I think that would be a deleterious to US interests going forward. We need balance.
Preet Bharara: How does it come to pass in various cultures and we talk about people being leaders but other than in situations when people where people take leadership by force and we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people who rise through a company or rise through political ranks, arise with military ranks and become the head of something. Often we’ll look at those folks and we’ll say they have neither good leadership skills, and perhaps also not good character. I mean it’s a very broad question. I guess there are different circumstances and different institutions, but it makes one wonder when you have esteemed institutions that nevertheless sometimes permit bad leaders to emerge, how do you fix that?
Adm. Stavridis: Well, first of all, I think we are getting better at that very broadly speaking. If you were to survey articles, survey the general conversational trend in the world of business or the military or higher education, you get away with a lot less today. I think of toxicity as a leader than you did 50 years ago. Certainly that’s true in terms of gender and how we treat women in the workplace. I think there is far less tolerance for anger and this goes back to why I was so shocked to see the president’s tone and comments and demeanor in the Tank. That’s toxic leadership and I think there’s less of that. Does it still exist? This gets to your question. Sure and oftentimes alongside qualities of toxicity, there can also exist real charisma. There can be determination, there can be resilience, there can be drive that can exist alongside character, deep character flaws. Let me give you a historical example. I just wrote a book called Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character and I’ve profiled 10 historical admirals going back 2,500 years.
Adm. Stavridis: Sir Francis Drake. He’s a charismatic-driven, highly competent operator who leads the British forces, the English forces that destroy the Spanish Armada. At the same time he’s a pirate, he’s a free booter. He operates loosely with a letter of Mark in the Caribbean. He’s a rapist. He enslaves people. He’s an absolute toxic leader. The answer to the question, how do people like that get to that top? Oftentimes through a side set of qualities that drive them forward. It happens when societies, institutions, and organizations don’t call out those toxic leaders. Again, the good news is I think we’re getting better at that. I’ll be it with many flaws and many counter-examples.
Preet Bharara: What you just discussed calls to mind the case of SEAL chief petty officer Edward Gallagher and what he engaged in and who was his greatest supporter? President of the United States, how does that make you feel?
Adm. Stavridis: I felt literally ill when I saw photographs of chief petty officer Gallagher at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays with the president of the United States and let’s separate two things here. I disagree with the pardon. I have written about this in time and other places saying that this was a case that should have been, it was brought by SEALs. It should have been adjudicated in front of a jury of SEALs and Special Forces and military and their verdict and recommendation is what should have stood. Having said that, the president certainly has a right to reach in and pardon him and that’s what he did but to then bring that individual to Mar-a-Lago and I’d invite anybody listening to just go online and look at the photographs of chief petty officer Gallagher holding a hunting knife to the neck of a dead teenager under which he, Chief Gallagher, inscribed on Instagram, “I got my hunting skills on or I got my knife skills on.” That’s not who the military is and so I am one to say, I was shocked to see him at Mar-a-Lago.
Preet Bharara: There are reports, I think you may have acknowledged this that early on in the Trump administration, you were in talks with some folks and maybe there would’ve been some role for you. Did you really consider that and with the benefit of hindsight, had you taken some position? How long do you think you would have lasted?
Adm. Stavridis: Yeah, let’s just make my bipartisan credentials real for a second. I’m a registered independent. I was a career military officer. I was vetted for vice president by Hillary Clinton, one of six individuals so formally vetted by the campaign after the election. Subsequently, I think because I am an independent, I was invited to Trump Tower to discuss a possible Cabinet position with the Trump administration. Around the same time they brought in General Kelly, General Mattis. I had an hour long conversation with President Trump and at the end of it. Preet I realized that I was not a good candidate to serve in his cabinet because I just had fundamental policy disagreements with the president.
Adm. Stavridis: In a magical world where I would have said, “Well, the policy differences aren’t that significant and I had accepted a role.” We were discussing both secretary of state and director of national intelligence. I think I know myself pretty well and I think if I had taken such a job, I would have left after the events at Charlottesville. I feel very strongly that was the moment when I could not have continued to serve in the Cabinet. Others like Kelly and Mattis took the job. They hung in for a longer period of time, but I think there was little doubt that over time, both of them, both good friends of mine were not going to have a successful run as a Cabinet official with Donald Trump.
Preet Bharara: You have said, speaking of effective leadership, the three qualities that make for effective leadership, they may be things that people wouldn’t expect to former Supreme Allied commander of NATO to pick and they are I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, empathy, humility and curiosity about the world.
Adm. Stavridis: Yeah. I stand by those qualities.
Preet Bharara: Then hypothetical question, let me ask, what happens when a political leader has those three qualities, empathy, humility, and curiosity about the world in less abundance than anyone in modern history?
Adm. Stavridis: I think that much of the president’s difficulties stem from a lack of those three qualities. Empathy is an enormous force multiplier in anybody’s life. If you have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s good intelligence. It’s also not only the right way to be, but it is pragmatically very effective. Humility. Colin Powell, one of my life mentors has said, “You can get anything done if you’re willing not to get credit for it.” I have seen that again and again in the course of my career and I think that when you’re constantly pushing yourself forward to the detriment of others, you are not as effective as you could be. I think in particular those two qualities; I think the lack of them tends to hold the president back.
Preet Bharara: Am I correct that you are an accomplished chef?
Adm. Stavridis: Well, I’ll put it this way. In another parallel life, I would be running a line in a diner somewhere.
Preet Bharara: How are your eggs?
Adm. Stavridis: I am exceptional and I grew up around cooks. My grandfather emigrated here as a Greek refugee from the burning of the city of Smyrna in 1922 and like many Greeks, he opened a diner and Preet, my grandfather was the model for the diner in my big fat Greek wedding.
Preet Bharara: Oh really?
Adm. Stavridis: Absolutely, I have been around cooks. I’ve been a busboy. I’ve been a prep guy; I’ve been a line guy. I can run a line in a small diner. I would never call myself a chef but I do all the cooking in my own house and much to my wife’s delight. I’ll tell you what, I’m really good at, and you guess this. I’m really good at Mediterranean food so I make great French cassoulet. I make great paella from Spain. I cook any Greek cuisine, obviously. I think a pretty good risotto. I make a great tagine from North Africa, but yeah, I love good cooking, good food and a good glass of wine to go with it.
Preet Bharara: Well, you’ve been very kind with your time, Admiral James Stavridis. Thank you again for being on the show. It was very thoughtful, everything you have to say. I wish we had more time.
Adm. Stavridis: Preet, thank you so much. All the best.
Preet Bharara: Take care.
Preet Bharara: The conversation continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. To hear the Stay Tuned bonus with Admiral James Stavridis and get the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider podcast and other exclusive content, head to cafe.com/insider. Right now, you can try a CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks at cafe.com/insider. Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Admiral James Stavridis. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show.
Preet Bharara: Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag ask Preet or you can call and leave me a message at 669 247-7338. That’s 669 24PREET or you can send an email to [email protected] Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore and the CAFE team is Julia Doyle, Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Calvin Lord, Sam Ozer-Staton and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.