Servants of the U.S. National Interest

Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

By Paul R. Pillar

The roles of national security professionals who spend careers in government have gotten increased attention lately, mainly because some of their number have been thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight because of the possible impeachment of Donald Trump. The attention has not improved public understanding of the missions and commitment of such officials. The politics surrounding the impeachment issue unfortunately have made public misunderstanding even worse.

Better understanding starts with the basic reasons the nation has such professional services, which include the uniformed military, the foreign service, intelligence officers and other civilian career officials in certain agencies and departments working on national security.

The existence of those services reflects the following principles: One is that the most important and fundamental national security interests are continuous and do not change from one election outcome to another. These include the safety, well-being, and prosperity of the American people. They include a continuing interest in U.S. foreign relations being conducted with truth, knowledge, and integrity. Such things are not artifacts of specific ideologies, grand strategies, party platforms, or policy lines.  Although political competition plays on differences and thus understates the continuity, most of the day-to-day conduct of America’s relations with the world is not part of that political play.

A second principle is that continuity in personnel is important. It preserves knowledge. It preserves working relationships, both inside the U.S. government and with other governments. It minimizes disruption in work patterns. One indication of the importance of this factor is how much disruption and re-inventing of wheels take place when administrations change and the large politically-appointed layer that overlays the professional services is replaced. Imagine how much more disruption there would be if such politically driven replacement reached even farther down in the government.

A third principle is that expertise and experience matter. The nation is best served when it is served by the people who are the most expert and experienced at the specific functions that the nation calls on them to perform. There tends to be somewhat more understanding of this principle with regard to the military than with the other professional services. It is not controversial to suggest that when a U.S. Army division is sent into combat, it is best if the general commanding it was not selected on the basis of his political views. (There were political generals in the Civil War, and many of them did not work out well.) The understanding is less with diplomacy, as reflected in the prevalence of inexperienced nonprofessional ambassadors, a pattern that the Trump administration has taken to new depths. The late Malcolm Toon, a distinguished diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, told of meeting an admiral who said he wanted to be an ambassador when he retired from the Navy—to which Toon replied that when he retired from the foreign service he wanted to command an aircraft carrier.

Professional ethics and political accountability

A fourth principle is that reconciling the previous three principles with political accountability in a representative democracy requires career services imbued with a strict and well-defined ethic. That ethic includes dedication to the national interest without injecting partisan purposes or an officer’s personal political views in the course of performing official duties. It includes giving the best unvarnished advice to political superiors in private, while refraining from discordant statements in public. It requires recognition that elected political leaders, and not unelected officials, have the right and the duty to make policy. But it also means that ultimate loyalty is to the nation and the Constitution and not to any one set of leaders—as reflected in the oaths that officers swear upon entering a service.

This ethic goes a long way in determining who populates the professional services involved in national security. Self-selection is critical. The sorts of people who gravitate to such careers are not only interested in the specific function they perform—be it ground combat as an infantry officer, making sense of incomplete information as an intelligence analyst, or something else—but also are more comfortable than others with the constraints of the professional ethic. Anyone in a service who becomes uncomfortable with those constraints and yearns to be more outspoken and active as a policy advocate is likely to self-select out of the service and do something else, such as joining a political campaign or advocacy group or even running for office themselves.

Several aspects of the current political atmosphere exacerbate public misunderstanding of all of this. First are the smears, from Trump himself and from those who support him no matter what, against career officers who report truths relevant to Trump’s misconduct.  The smears intended to discredit officers such as Ambassador William Taylor and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman have been ruthless and despicable. The smears, like much else uttered by the same smear merchants, will be believed by a substantial segment of the U.S. population.

Then there are efforts from above, such as in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s State Department, to vet and purge career officials as a way of enforcing political loyalty. The objects of such efforts may not become recognizable names in the news such as Taylor and Vindman, but the whole exercise adds to the impression among much of the public that career officials are no less partisan than those in the political stratum.

Another blurred distinction—one relevant to the stricture against serving officials speaking publicly against the policies of their political masters—is between officials on active duty and ones who are retired. The distinction is all-important. Actively serving officers are subject to all the ethical constraints of their profession, including ones relevant to expressing opinions publicly. Retirees or others who have left the service are private citizens free to exercise fully their First Amendment rights. And yet the distinction keeps getting blurred, and not just in Trump’s demeaning of former officials who criticize him or his policies. Thus the Washington Post runs an article about “current and former military officials” criticizing Trump’s policy on Syria, in which ominous references are made to “straining” codes of conduct and to Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination against Harry Truman, but with no distinction drawn between the much different circumstances of current officials and former ones.

Impact of partisanship

A broader factor in contributing to the misunderstanding is the hyper-partisanship of the last couple of decades in which, at least from the perspective of parts of the political spectrum, just about everything said or done in the public sphere has a partisan objective (and evidently in the view of some, should have a partisan objective). For those who are immersed especially deeply in this atmosphere, the idea of objective policy analysis or nonpartisan pursuit of a broader national interest is a foreign concept, genuinely difficult for them to understand. Following easily from this lack of understanding is the belief that when a career official speaks or acts in any way inconvenient for President Trump and his supporters, then it must be because the official is motivated by his or her own policy or partisan objectives. From that follows the overall nonsense about a “deep state.” And no, when Colonel Vindman spoke to the impeachment inquiry about Ukraine being a bulwark against Russian aggression and a source of reformist hope, he was not, as has been suggested, epitomizing the “mindset” of a “foreign policy establishment” that is determined to block efforts by Trump to move foreign policy in a different direction.  He was merely stating what has been official U.S. policy toward Ukraine, including the official policy of the current administration. As Taylor described in detail in his statement to the same inquiry, there have been two policy channels, each with its own policy, toward Ukraine: the official one and the Rudy Giuliani one. Vindman, as a military officer and a National Security Council staffer, was quite properly following the official one. He was not pushing for a policy and is not a member of the “Blob,” which by definition does push policy.

Trump’s antipathy—and thus the antipathy and suspicion of many of his followers—toward career professionals in the national security bureaucracy dates back to the beginning of his administration, when the intelligence community’s unavoidable findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election cast a huge cloud over Trump’s election victory. Trump’s clashes with that bureaucracy will continue as long as he promotes untruths about election interference, the nature of corruption in Ukraine, or any other topic that professionals in the bureaucracy are duty-bound to address in an objective and truthful manner. There will be clashes not because those professionals have a partisan or policy agenda, but because they do not.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Paul Pillar disappoints with this piece:

    Foreign policy is the president’s constitutional prerogative. This includes the definition of the “national security interests”.

    “One is that the most important and fundamental national security interests are continuous and do not change from one election outcome to another. These include the safety, well-being, and prosperity of the American people. ”

    There are no constant “national security interests”. These vary depending on the situation.

    Trump thinks it is stupid to favor Ukraine, Europe’s poorest and most corrupt country, and to thereby push Russia into the open arms of China. He prefers to ally with Russia to counter China. He believes that it is in the “national security interest” to do such. He said so during his campaign and was elected on that basis.

    “And no, when Colonel Vindman spoke to the impeachment inquiry about Ukraine being a bulwark against Russian aggression and a source of reformist hope, he was not, as has been suggested, epitomizing the “mindset” of a “foreign policy establishment” that is determined to block efforts by Trump to move foreign policy in a different direction.”

    Partisan “borg” like Vindman are obviously incapable to grasp that Trump wants to change the hostile U.S. policy towards Russia and has the right to do so. He thinks that he is entitled to define “national security interests” and thereby foreign policy. He, and Paul Pillar, are wrong on this..

  2. B

    US has declared herself to be the enemy of Shia Islam.

    Is declaring an entering a religious war also the perogative of the United States President?

    You are corrupted in the United States: you wage an economic war currently against Iran by first passing laws in your parliament and then leaving the president to initiate the war at his discretion.

    In this manner, you are avoiding declaring war, which is illegal even within your own laws since 1945, and pretend that you are not.

    The schisms at the heart of your polity is discernible to everyone in the world except yourselves.

  3. FYI
    Mr Trump doesn’t know about Shi’ite or Sunni, he is more ignorant than Bush (W) of John McCain could be. The reasons for leaving or staying in Syria (to protect the Syrian oil fields?…) if you ask him he will turn to you looking whether you’re an alien… Concerning B, he truly believes he understands Trump… he, and Trump are the aliens…

  4. What I hear you saying, Mr. Pillar, is that the United States corporate form and the careers of its managers are more important than the people and their interests. Odious and borderline treasonous, but perfectly in line with the interests of the new aristocracy.

    Tell me, sir, if the National Security Act of 1947 were repealed in full tomorrow, would you be living in a cardboard box by this time next year?

  5. JRH

    Ignorance is not an excuse.

    Did Pontious Pilate bear any responsibity for Crucifixion?

Comments are closed.