Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostPartisan | Opinion

Five military leaders Republicans could draft for a run for president. (Hint: It worked before.)

By David Ignatius

April 11, 2016 at 4:35 PM

Gen. David Petraeus in 2010. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Editor's note: This column has been updated since publication.

As the Republican Party heads toward what could be a stalemated convention in Cleveland in July, delegates might recall how the GOP healed itself in 1952 in what was known as the "Winter of Discontent." The Republicans drafted a military leader, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as their presidential candidate.

The looming showdown between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) is a potential "train wreck," to quote my colleague Charles Krauthammer. Neither of the two front-runners seems likely, at this point, to have the 1,237 delegates needed for a first-ballot victory. If either ultimately prevails, the victory could leave a residue of bitterness that could undermine the party's chances in November.

How can the GOP escape this demolition derby? Some have proposed a unity bid by House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.). But Ryan issued a statement Tuesday disavowing any interest — evidently concluding that if he appeared to be stealing the nomination from the two candidates who won most of the primaries and caucuses, the result might be even more divisive for the GOP.

Enter the candidates on horseback: While military leaders can sometimes be dangerous in politics, our best generals and admirals embody the democratic values and leadership skills for which the country is yearning. .

Who should be on the roster of potential national-security draftees? Gen. James Mattis, a retired Marine who served as U.S. Central Command commander, has already been floated. The Daily Beast posted an item Saturday reporting that wealthy Republicans were urging Mattis to consider a late candidacy.

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis in 2010. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Mattis is a blunt, plainspoken man who could rival Trump for impolitic comments. Four-star officers sometimes describe him as the "warrior monk" because of his intense, ascetic manner. But he's a true military leader, beloved by his troops and an intellectual who kept a volume of mediations by the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius, in Latin, by his bedside.

The GOP should consider some other names, if it's looking for a former military leader who could unite a divided party and nation. A roll call, in alphabetical order:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, right, in 2009. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

• Gen. Stanley McChrystal commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan and, before that, ran the deadly strike force known as the Joint Special Operations Command. Like Mattis, he's a warrior who earned deep admiration from his subordinates. In retirement, he has been teaching international relations at Yale University and writing about leadership.

McChrsytal might be controversial because he was sacked as commander in Afghanistan after a 2010 Rolling Stone article quoted him criticizing Vice President Biden; critics argued that those remarks were unprofessional, but they probably wouldn't bother grass-roots Republicans. McChrystal also helps lead a bipartisan group that advocates a new program of national service.

Adm. Mike Mullen.

• Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the military into a new era of tolerance toward gay men and lesbians. That might not endear him to Republicans, but officers who served with Mullen say he had a rare ability to unite the military and represent it to the country. His manner is low-key and cannily reserved, a bit like that of Eisenhower, another officer with the knack for managing difficult personalities.

• Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Centcom, is probably the most decorated officer of his generation. Leading the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007, he managed to reverse the sectarian bloodbath there and briefly stabilize the country, in one of the few bright moments for the United States in Iraq.

Petraeus stumbled as CIA director when he shared classified information with a West Point graduate who had written his biography and with whom he was having an affair; he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in that case. Since leaving the CIA in 2012, he has been working for an investment firm and teaching at Harvard University, the University of Southern California and the City University of New York.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) in 2013. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

• A final name would be former representative Mike Rogers (Mich.), who retired in 2014 after heading the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers served three years in the Army, but he makes the list because of his service as an FBI agent from 1988 to 1994 fighting organized crime in Chicago. Rogers also has a rare talent, among conservative Republicans, of working effectively with Democrats. He took a broken, divided House Intelligence Committee and, by allying with the Democratic ranking member, made the committee work.

I tried to contact Mattis, McChrystal, Mullen, Petraeus and Rogers on Monday. But all of them either couldn't be reached or declined comment. One virtue or liability of these names, depending on your perspective, is that except for Rogers, I'm not sure of their party affiliation. Another important point is that unlike some past military leaders with political ambitions — Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay and Al Haig come to mind — all five have shown reserve and sound judgment under pressure.

The GOP may continue on its fun house ride with Trump and Cruz, but it is increasingly likely that this journey won't have a happy ending. Maybe it is time for Republicans to consider a nominee who might actually be able to lead the country out of the wilderness.


David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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