On many occasions during my professional life of over 40 years, I've been a member of the Republican national security team. Starting in 1981, when I was a staff member for the US Senate Appropriations Committee working for Republican Senator Ted Stevens for Alaska, my fundamental beliefs about America's role in the world have guided me to vote for, and serve, Republican leaders. Among the enduring principles they demonstrated: rational decision making - with national, rather than personal interest in mind - creates the best outcomes; America's allies are an asset; provocation by America's enemies must be addressed directly; the enormous complexity of America’s national security are beyond the abilities of any single person, so a president’s people are his policy and he has to trust them. I was honored to serve in leadership capacities to implement those principles in various roles which included service as President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of the Navy, as a member of President George W. Bush's White House staff and as NASA Administrator thereafter.
For several reasons, I'm now a Republican supporting Joe Biden for President. That does not make me a turncoat or a Socialist, nor does it make me soft on defense. Above all, I am acting on my sense of responsible citizenship to contribute to our collective responsibility to preserve the American Experiment that has lasted for nearly 250 years. Along with many other Republicans who support Biden, I plan to go right back to serving as a member of the loyal opposition. I'm not switching sides or surrendering my Republican credentials. We need not buy total agreement with Biden's agenda. But I believe that a Commander-in-Chief who successfully protects the interests of all Americans must have the quiet competence of George H.W. Bush; the disciplined responsibility of Dwight Eisenhower; and the principled optimism of Ronald Reagan.
President Trump, to put it mildly, lacks the characteristics these Presidents exemplified, and America has paid the price.
In George H.W. Bush's White House, your competence outran your voice. Statesmen like National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft subordinated his ego and opinions to ensure the President had all the information available at the time to make the best decisions. The President trusted him, valued his counsel and his global perspective. Scowcroft would have found the Trump Administration's incompetent response to COVID-19 appalling. President Trump buried the bad news about the severity of the pandemic, insisting his staff cherry-pick information that would support a false narrative, namely that the pandemic was under control. Misleading public assurances that the virus would disappear " like a miracle" led to countless unforced errors: lifting quarantines too early, failing to secure adequate testing and personal protective equipment, and a baffling decision to turn wearing a mask, one of the easiest, most effective things you can do to save lives, into a culture war issue. We now know that the President's decision to restrict travel from China was a good one . . . that he knew was issued well after the pandemic began to spread. Tens of thousands of people have travelled from China to the U.S. regardless of the "ban," and the decision didn't come close to outweighing the obfuscations, misdirection and outright mistakes.
You don't need to look far too see other examples of Trump Administration incompetence that would give George H.W. Bush a headache. Briefed with overwhelming evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, verified by our national intelligence community, President Trump attests that he asked Russian President Putin about this and the polezny durak was told that this accusation was simply not true. China bamboozled President Trump on our trade "deal". North Korea dictator Kim Jung Un snowed the President with kind words and promises of future talks while continuing his nuclear program unchecked. He decided to betray our Kurdish allies who had joined us in the battle against Islamic State terrorism. And he did so for little reason other than authoritarian Turkish president Recep Erdogan asked him to.
The behavior of this administration would similarly embarrass President Eisenhower who's famous dictum was "plans are worthless, but planning is everything." He believed that every decision had consequences. He believed that it was critical to think through everything that could go wrong and the likely outcomes of a given action before committing to a given course. That is not President Trump's approach, and it has weakened our security. The decision to withdraw troops from Germany was done with little consultation with our allies. The revolving door on Afghanistan policy has been enough to cause whiplash for our American negotiators and inspired confidence by the Taliban to continue random acts of violence even amidst a cease fire. The apparent absence of planning hasn't been restricted to operational matters, alliance agreements or commitments. When the President decided to enforce a ban on transgender people serving in the military, he did so by tweet, with no consultation with the military, leaving thousands of soldiers unsure of their status and countless commanding officers unsure whether people they relied upon were still allowed to serve. Independent of one's opinion about the policy, doing so suddenly, and with no prior engagement, consultation or prior direction to the military leadership was simply irresponsible and created confusion.
These decisions are wholly within the President's authority and prerogative. But in doing so, the consequences of these decisions are also part of the job. It is simply impossible to imagine a citizen soldier like President Eisenhower ever saying "I don't take responsibility at all."
Finally, Commanders in Chief must take on the persona of the indomitable American spirit. President Reagan understood the importance of America's moral authority, of its serving as a “shining city upon a hill.” In the opening comments of his first inaugural address, he observed the remarkable continuity of the peaceful transfer of authority, a practice that had been sustained throughout the American Experiment. He marveled at how American citizens have simply come to accept our orderly succession experience as a given, while others around the globe consider our practice to be nothing short of a miracle. President Reagan pointed out our nation's problems so he could outline his optimism in our capacity to fix them. That, again, is not President Trump's approach – for a man who declares his intent to make America great, he bashes it constantly. He has consequently undermined America's moral authority, relinquishing one of America's strongest assets with little purpose. His words have given Russia an opening to further divide us through misinformation, and his ill-temper has caused global respect for America to plummet.
We now struggle to convince allies and rivals alike to do anything to advance our best interest. Our friends have lost confidence that we'll do what we committed to do. Our adversaries do not fear us. In the name of nationalism, we have become isolated with, with all attendant dangers still at hand. Within a bitterly divided nation fueled by the President's megaphone, our armed forces harbor concern that they will be ordered to confront their fellow citizens to put down unrest that could emerge from an election result the president refuses to accept.
I am not supporting President Trump's reelection. That does not make me a "Republican in Name Only." If anything, the principles that drew me to Republicans in the first place now compel me to support Joe Biden. The reality is there isn't a Republican who embraces fundamental Republican principles running for President this year. There are two candidates. One candidate has demonstrated the strong leadership qualities, values, and principles best exemplified by statesmen like Bush, Eisenhower, and Reagan. And the other is Donald Trump.
Sean O'Keefe served as Secretary of the Navy for President George H.W. Bush and NASA Administrator for President George W. Bush. He is the former Chancellor of Louisiana State University.
Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks during a voter mobilization event, at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner.