President Without a Purpose

A few years ago, I gave lectures on the history of the US presidency. Back in those days, George W. Bush was the resident of the White House and was not a favorite among my students. At one point, I reminded the group that each of the 43 men who embodied the Executive Branch of the American government during their mandate needed special virtues to be elected.

George W. Bush was not very popular – mainly because of the military intervention in Iraq – but he had distinctive qualities of loyalty and determination, which, coupled with his principles and visible kindness, made him a great president (in my humble opinion). Never did I think I would be hard-pressed to find a notable quality to a sitting President. But that time has come.

I was impatient to put my hand on Rage by Bob Woodard. The legendary Washington Post journalist did not disappoint. His last book is one of his best, exposing a president that will certainly go down in history as one of the most polarizing.

When you think of the president of the United States, you do not necessarily expect an Ivy League scholar. But you can certainly hope the person will manifest some sort of intellectual curiosity and will be able to grasp essential nuances. Rage plainly demonstrates this is not the case with Donald Trump.

Among the many episodes evoked by the author, the following one is quite evocative of the man who is “impervious to facts”:

“Coats’s [Trump’s intelligence czar] relations with Trump soured quickly as the president persisted in asking Coats to stop or get control of the FBI’s Russian investigation. Trump wanted Coats to say there was no evidence of coordination or conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Coats repeatedly tried to point out that the FBI had a criminal side and an intelligence side. He had oversight and a role in the intelligence side. But he has no role, zero, in the criminal investigations – including the Mueller probe of Russian interference.

Trump disagreed, or did not understand, and acted as if Coats was insubordinate.”

Bob Woodward paints the portrait of a small man who doesn’t like to read, takes credit for the work and ideas of others, lets himself be flattered by a murderous dictatorial madman who panders to his Himalayan ego by calling him “Your Excellency”, claims to never be in the wrong, has no idea of what a policy process is all about, needed his chief of staff [retired U.S. Marine Corps John Kelly] to brief him about what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thinks that he genetically understands atomic weapons because his uncle taught “[…] at MIT for 42 years or something.” I have to admit I guffawed at that last one.

On COVID-19 specifically, Trump feels it’s unfair he has to deal with it – as if FDR was pleased to enter World War II, or GWB was content to respond to 9/11. Perhaps reading a few books on political history would have helped Kim Jong-un’s friend to understand that becoming president means sailing troubled waters.

The author confirms what many believe. It takes a certain ethos to become president of the United States, an ethos Donald Trump does not possess. Nor was he intellectually of emotionally fit either for office. In a passage, he quotes the president telling him: “Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” This childish excitement could be forgiven if it was not accompanied by another psychological penchant that leads him to have disparaging comments regarding others. In the eyes of the New York real estate mogul, Barack Obama is not smart, George W. Bush is a moron (which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test) and members of the Intelligence establishment “should go back to school” – which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test.

Decency is a word that never found its way in Donald Trump’s persona and US politics is poorer because of it. After all, what would you make of a candidate who asks his campaign manager not to stand besides him on Election night because he is taller than him? Or when the same person who, upon becoming president, is not man enough to fire members of his team face to face, relying on Twitter to do so? I have never read such stories about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Because these three commanders in chief were emotionally stable. They acted like grown and mature men who did not need to trample on others to shine.

Truthfully, I never expected Bob Woodward to portray a likable, knowledgeable, intellectual and inspiring leader. After all, we’re talking of a president who thrives on hate and ignorance. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the “fly on Pence’s hair the wall” point of view – like future Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wearing tennis shoes when he met with future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for dinner at the Jefferson Hotel – I did not expect to witness such chaos at the highest level of the American political life either.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law who serves as a valued advisor in his father-in-law administration is probably right on the mark when he recommends Alice in Wonderland to those who seek to better understand the current president. Paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat who says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

This is probably the best way to summarize the mandate of this president without a purpose.

Reading a new book by Bob Woodward is always a real treat. But I pray to God his next one will be about the 46th president that will move into the White House next January.

_____________

Bob Woodward, Rage, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 480 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, who kindly provided me with a review copy of Rage and for her continued precious and generous assistance.

Le dérapage de l’administration Trump / Trump Administration’s Major Blunder

CaptCrozierTimesofIsrael
Capt. Brett Crozier (source: Times of Israel)

THE ENGLISH VERSION FOLLOWS

Le livre de Guy Snodgrass, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis est l’un des livres les plus intéressants et perspicaces à propos de la relation entre le président Trump et les militaires. À la lumière du congédiement récent du Capt. Brett Crozier en relation avec la crise de la Covid-19, cet auteur très bien informé a accepté de répondre à mes questions. Voici le contenu de nos échanges :

HoldingTheLineCapitaine de frégate Snodgrass: à la lumière du limogeage du capitaine Crozier de son commandement, je suis très heureux d’avoir l’occasion de vous poser quelques questions, puisque peu de gens sont plus qualifiés que vous pour commenter la situation.

Connaissez-vous personnellement le capitaine de frégate Brett Crozier?

Oui. Nous avons servi ensemble à bord de l’USS Ronald Reagan, un porte-avions à propulsion nucléaire basé à Yokosuka, au Japon. Il était commandant en second du navire (n° 2 à bord) et j’étais commandant de l’escadron de chasse.

Pensez-vous que le capitaine Crozier a fait ce qu’il fallait lorsqu’il a sonné l’alarme concernant la présence du virus à bord du navire?

Oui, sans aucun doute, il a fait ce qu’il fallait, en sensibilisant les autorités relativement à l’infection de la Covid-19 à bord de son navire de guerre. Un débat animé se poursuivra, à savoir si la manière dont il a sensibilisé le public, via un courriel envoyé à plusieurs destinataires au sein de la Marine, était la bonne ligne de conduite.

Cette situation évolue rapidement, alors que le secrétaire par intérim de la Marine, Thomas Modley, vient de prononcer un discours mal avisé et mal reçu à bord du navire de guerre concernant sa décision de congédier le capitaine Crozier.

Le secrétaire à la défense ou le président des États-Unis auraient-ils pu revenir sur cette décision s’ils avaient été en désaccord?

Pourraient-ils? Certainement. Modley était un responsable politique et ils sont supérieurs à lui [le secrétaire par intérim de la Marine] dans la «chaîne de commandement» politique.

Le secrétaire de la défense Mattis aurait-il agi de la même manière (limogeage du capitaine Crozier)?

Difficile à dire. Mattis est très imprévisible. Tout dépend de la façon dont l’information lui aurait été présentée. Comme Esper, Mattis aurait probablement ordonné que le capitaine Crozier soit relevé de ses fonctions, mais il aurait géré la situation de manière plus avisée.

Quel message ce congédiement envoie-t-il aux autres commandants de la Marine qui pourraient être confrontés à la même situation?

Faites attention à la façon dont vous communiquez avec les quartiers généraux supérieurs. Quoi que vous fassiez, vous aurez tort. À la fin de la journée, la US Navy a toujours besoin de professionnels prêts à prendre des décisions difficiles, quelles que soient les conséquences personnelles. Le capitaine Crozier a peut-être agi de manière inappropriée dans la manière de transmettre le courriel et le message à partir de sa boîte d’envoi, mais la gestion de la réponse par le Secrétaire de la Marine a été 10 fois pire que la faute originelle.

Que peut-on retenir des actions du capitaine Crozier au sujet du leadership en période de crise?

Faites ce qu’il faut, même dans l’anonymat. Placez toujours votre devoir devant vos intérêts personnels. Et que nos actions parlent plus fort que les paroles ne le pourront jamais.

À mon humble avis, il y a un parallèle intéressant entre les gestes posés par le capitaine Crozier et les paroles de Theodore Roosevelt, qui affirmait qu’il : « […] saura que sa place n’a jamais été parmi les âmes froides et timorées qui ne connaissent ni la victoire ni l’échec. » Êtes-vous d’accord?

J’adore cette citation. Je ne peux pas dire si elle convient ou non, et ce, tant que la Marine n’aura pas terminé l’enquête sur les circonstances entourant la note de service et sa publication.

Qui est votre leader / personnage historique favori pour des moments comme ceux-ci? Et pourquoi?

Le colonel de la US Air Force qui a posé la question philosophique à la génération montante des hauts dirigeants: préférez-vous être quelqu’un ou faire quelque chose? C’est difficile de faire les deux.

Accepteriez-vous de partager avec nos lecteurs votre opinion sur la manière dont le président et l’administration gèrent la situation?

Oui, j’aimerais bien. Je vous renvoie également à un épisode de mon podcast récent au sujet du congédiement du capitaine Crozier: https://anchor.fm/htlpodcast

Êtes-vous étonné par la démission du secrétaire par intérim de la Marine? Était-ce prévisible?

Pas étonné. Il était prévisible que les gestes posés par le Secrétaire par intérim de la Marine a résulté en une perte de confiance auprès de la population américaine, sans parler des hommes et des femmes qu’il représente au sein de la US Navy.

Merci beaucoup pour la générosité de votre temps et je souhaite que vous et votre famille soyez à l’abri de cette pandémie.

Merci, Marc, je te souhaite la même chose ainsi qu’à tes proches.

____

Guy Snodgrass’s book Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis is one of the most interesting and insightful books I’ve read about the relationship between President Trump and the military. In light of what happened in the last couple of days with the firing of Capt. Brett Cozier in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this very well-informed author has accepted to respond my questions. Here is the content of our exchange:

Commander Snodgrass: in light of Capt. Crozier’s firing from his command post, I’m very happy to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions because few people are more qualified than you to comment it.

Do you know Capt. Brett Crozier personally?

Yes, I do. We served together onboard USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. He was the ship’s executive officer (#2 onboard) and I was a fighter squadron commanding officer.

Do you think Capt. Crozier did the right thing when he sounded the alarm about the presence of the virus on his ship?

Yes, undoubtedly, he did the right thing by raising awareness of the Covid-19 infection sweeping through his warship. What will continue to be hotly contested is whether or not the manner in which he raised awareness, via an email sent to multiple Navy recipients, was the right course of action.

This situation is moving swiftly, as Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modley just gave an ill-advised and poorly received speech onboard the warship regarding his decision to fire Captain Crozier.

Could the Secretary of Defense or the President of the United States have reversed this decision if they had been in disagreement?

Could they? Sure. Modley was a political appointee and they are senior to him in the political “chain of command.”

Would DefSec Mattis have acted the same way (firing Capt. Crozier)?

Hard to tell. Mattis is very mercurial. All depends on how information was presented to him. Like Esper, Mattis would likely have ordered Crozier’s firing but he would have handled it in a more savvy manner.

What message does this firing send to other Navy commanders who might be confronted to the same situation?

Be careful how you communicate with higher headquarters. Damned if you do… damned if you don’t.  At the end of the day, the U.S. Navy still needs professionals willing to make hard calls regardless of their personal consequences. Captain Crozier may have acted inappropriately in the manner by which the email and message made its way out of his outbox, but the Navy Secretary has handled his response 10x worse than the original sin.

What does Capt. Crozier’s actions teach us about leadership in times of crisis?

Do the right thing, even when no one is watching. Always put service before self. And that our actions speak louder than words ever can.

In my humble opinion, there is an interesting parallel between Capt. Crozier’s actions and the words of Theodore Roosevelt when he said “[…] so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Would you tend to agree?

I love that quote. Can’t comment on whether or not the quote fits until the Navy completes the investigation of the circumstances around the memo and its release.

Who’s your favorite leader / historical figure for times like these? And why?

U.S. Air Force Colonel who asked the philosophical question of rising senior leaders: Would you rather be someone or do something? It’s hard to do both.

Would you agree to share with our readers your opinion about how the President and the administration are managing the situation?

Yes, I would. I also refer you to my recently released podcast for an episode discussing Captain Crozier’s firing: https://anchor.fm/htlpodcast

Are you surprised by the resignation of the Acting Secretary of Navy? Was that predictable?

Not surprised. Seems predictable in that the Acting Secretary’s actions resulted in a loss of trust and confidence with the American public, not to mention the men and women he represents within the U.S. Navy.

Many sincere thanks for the generosity of your time and I wish you and your family will be safe from this pandemic.

Thanks, Marc, same to you and yours.

Fighting Covid-19 with “The Weapon Wizards”

WeaponWizards“The most important 6 inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” – James N. Mattis

Israeli soldiers have always impressed me. Because they know how to use their brains.

Few years ago, I was impressed to observe several young Israeli soldiers carrying their Tavor assault rifle – which was selected by the IDF to replace the M-16 – a weapon better adapted to urban warfare, which is a necessity for the Israel’s Defense Force (IDF).

In itself, the apparition of the Tavor is a vignette of Israel’s legendary capacity to find a solution to a challenging situation.

Few weeks ago, I reviewed Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power by Yaakov Katz. After finishing that excellent book, I decided to read the first book he wrote with Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower.

And that proved to be a delightful read.  

The authors recount how, in the days preceding the country’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, the leaders of the Yishuv understood that they could not only count on others to build up and develop their military and defense infrastructure. The kibbutzim who fabricated ammunition clandestinely paved the way to a country that is now the 8th largest arms exporter in the world and became “[…] the world’s largest exporter of drones”, while also developing discreet relations with China at the height of the Cold War.

Barack Obama is the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

It is therefore enthralling to learn how drones – a common feature in current military operations nowadays – were invented in the late 1960s by an Israeli innovator who had to surmount lots of opposition. Or how President Barack Obama’s intervention represented a lifesaver for the Iron Dome, after one of his advisors “[…] was struck by Israel’s lack of strategic depth and how close towns and cities were to the threats brewing in the North and South. When Kahl returned to Washington, he drafted a memo recommending that the White House immediately authorize $200 million in Iron Dome funding.”

I might ruffle a few feathers here, but I think that Barack Obama therefore became the godfather of a military invention that is “the world’s most deployed missile defense system, with more than 2000 interceptions and a success rate greater that 90%.

Autistic people serve in the IDF in a subunit of highly qualified people.

Thanks to Katz and Bohbot, the reader understands that, while Israel lacks geographical strategic depth, this feature is largely compensated by the resourcefulness of its people. The most interesting passage of the book is when the authors write about a special form of recruitment in Israel’s Armed Forces. “Gathering the intelligence is only half the job. The other half is analyzing the imagery. For that, the IDF created a subunit of highly qualified soldiers who have remarkable visual and analytical capabilities. The common denominator among its members is just as remarkable: they all have autism.”

I can think of no other country that does this.

In the IDF, a noncommissioned officer can argue with a general.

In terms of uniqueness, there is another aspect that struck me in the form of “[…] the country’s infamous casualness and informality.” They give the examples of a noncommissioned officer who argued with a general or the reservists who complained directly to the Prime Minister’s Office about a commander who lacked leadership, therefore blocking his promotion. In most of the military structures, an argument and / or a complaint represents the end of one’s advancement. Katz and Bohot write that “creativity can only happen when people come together and exchange ideas. To do that, they need to know each other and share the same language and culture. In Israel, they do that in the army.”

ChutzpahDefinitionAnyone who spent some time in Israel understands the notion that Israelis have no difficulties bending the rules. Oftentimes, the book refers to an occasion when an inventor or innovator used what we call “chutzpah” (a word that is often used between the covers) to progress, violating regulations or bypassing the chain of command to get in touch directly with the Minister of defense. These innovators know that the battlefield is only a few kilometers away and that “[…] if Israel is not creative in its thinking, there is a chance it will not survive.”

Israel’s military capabilities depend on its capacity to adapt and embrace technological and scientific innovation. Those who wear a lab coat and annoy the top brass with their disruptive ideas are responsible for giving the men and women in uniform the edge they need on the battleground to carry the day.

The brains of Israeli’s innovators represents the strategic depth of the country’s defense.

The Weapon Wizards is not only a brilliant exposé of Israel’s military technology. It’s also a colourful account of what makes the IDF so unique and forward-thinking, the brilliance of its people, which is the best possible insurance policy for the future.

All of this said, I have only one regret about The Weapon Wizards: not having read it before. And I’ll be very curious to read anything that I’ll be able to put my hands on about the Rafael defense technology company – a fascinating ambassador of Israel’s capacity to develop effective military solutions against all odds.

In this difficult period where many of us are called to stay home to better fight the Covid-19 pandemic, many are finding themselves with more time to read. All those who nourish an interest in military history will love this book. Trust me.

___________

Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower,New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 304 pages.

I would like to express special thanks to Mr. Joseph Rinaldi of St. Martin’s Press for his kind and precious assistance.

Q & A with CDR Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired)

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Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.

In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.

Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?

All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.

His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush

What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).

Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).

Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?

I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.

NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?

Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)

No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?

Yes: TOPGUN’s TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit (just posted on Amazon). An opportunity to share the most powerful lessons I learned during my time as a TOPGUN Instructor.

I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.

Would you consider a run for political office in the future?

Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Why Mattis didn’t survive in the Trump administration

HoldingTheLineReading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.

I was therefore thrilled to dive into Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, former Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director for Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.

I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.

And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.

To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).

I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.

According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.

Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.