Dear Secretaries Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo:
You both are distinguished graduates of West Point, Class of 1986. Pompeo stood first in the class; Esper won a leadership award. You then went on to highly successful careers inside and out of government before assuming your critical Cabinet posts.
Yet, it must be very difficult to reconcile having lived by the West Point Honor code that “no cadet shall lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those that do” and now work for a president whose honesty and integrity are at best suspect.
As you know, the Washington Post documented over 15,000 instances since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, citing his misstatements, misleading comments and abuses of truth and fact, sometimes patently so. Of course, the president could be guilty of supreme ignorance rather than telling outright lies. But both characteristics are dangerous.
Despite Jimmy Carter’s promise that he would never lie to the American public, presidents have. But none so frequently. Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II in Europe, lied in the immediate aftermath of the shoot-down of U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers over the Soviet Union in 1961, denying that the United States was flying such missions.
Ronald Reagan admitted lying to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, promising America had no intention of invading Grenada the night before the assault. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with a White House intern. As the Pentagon and later the Afghan Papers vividly showed, successive presidents concealed the truth over both conflicts and in some cases blatantly lied.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed in August 1964 that trapped the United States in a war it would lose was based on the erroneous report of a second North Vietnamese PT boat attack against two Navy destroyers. In the rush to war, the evidence was ignored. No attack occurred. Was this a lie?
Did the George W. Bush administration lie over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as Donald Trump claimed in 2006 in going to war against Saddam Hussein or cynically manipulate “intelligence” to make its case? Either way, that was dishonest or to a cadet, cheating. As many rightly argue, the March 2003 invasion turned out to be America’s greatest strategic disaster since the Civil War and the principal reason why the region remains in turmoil.
Of course, hypocrisy, exaggeration, bad judgment and ignorance are not always far from outright lying and knowingly making false statements. Which of these was the reason for this president’s outright falsehood in claiming his inauguration had the largest turnout in history? But if it had been a cadet, that statement violated the honor code.
Similarly, the American assertion that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism is not shared by all, especially those in the Arab world who see Israel as implacably opposed to the Palestinians. But perceptions that are seen as truthful in one place are not universally true. Still, that is no excuse for premeditated lies.
The pernicious and destructive effects of hyper-partisanship and politicization have eviscerated truth and fact in the political dialogue, accelerated by social media that is often an ungovernable space regarding both. Intense disagreement over whether “imminence” was an essential ingredient in the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani and whether Iran’s missile attack was aimed at killing Americans or an “olive branch” reflects this divisiveness.
After your briefing to Congress, Democrats saw no proof of imminence. With two exceptions, Republicans seemed satisfied. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who called this the “worst” military-related briefing he had heard in nine years in Congress, was probably less worried about evidence of imminence and more about a briefer who demeaned senatorial responsibilities for debate on matters of war and peace.
When you return to your alma mater, how do you or can you answer truthfully what many cadets are thinking (as well as at the other service academies)? If I am required not to lie, cheat or steal, why should the commander-in-chief not be held to that standard? If moral behavior is essential to good order and discipline, how do I reconcile the conduct of this president with my oath? The same questions also would have pertained to Clinton.
I know your jobs are extremely difficult. But I have no idea as to how you would respond to these profound questions over the honor code that cadets are duty-bound to follow.
Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and served as a professor of military strategy at the National War College and the Naval War College. A Naval Academy graduate, he conducted over 150 missions and operations during the Vietnam War in Swift Boats and commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts.” Follow him @harlankullman.