The former top US commander in Afghanistan – and one of the most well-known generals in America – has dipped his toe into political waters, leaving many wondering whether he will ultimately run for office.
Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal this week endorsed congressional candidate Seth Moulton, a former Marine, in his bid to unseat US Rep. John Tierney (D) of Massachusetts in a September Democratic primary.
General McChrystal, a former special operations commander, was forced to step down as head of US forces in Afghanistan in 2010 after a Rolling Stone article called into question his respect for civilian leadership.
McChrystal said he had never endorsed a political candidate before. “But I thought it was time to change it, and change it for one person,” he told a group of 100 people gathered at a Peabody, Mass., Elks Lodge.
This decision to offer an endorsement runs counter to the entreaties of America’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who this spring asked retiring general officers to think carefully before backing political candidates.
“If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I’m all for it,” he said during a talk in May at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “But don’t get out of the military and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate. If somebody asks me when I retire to support them in a political campaign, do you think they’re asking Marty Dempsey, or are they asking General Dempsey? I am a general for life and should remain true to our professional ethos, which is to be apolitical for life – unless I run.”
So why is offering an endorsement worse, in the eyes of General Dempsey, than actually running for office? It’s because former military officials who throw their hat into the ring willingly open themselves up to criticism, says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “They are fully partisan players – you can take shots at them without impugning the military, because they are candidates.”
But offering endorsements allows military officials “to maintain the benefits” of their former profession “at a larger cost to the military profession,” Dr. Feaver argues.
“You never really retire as a four-star general,” he says. “You still have special responsibilities and, frankly, special privileges that come with being a senior military leader. You’re called on for counseling, for mentoring – you’re part of helping the next generation lead the military as an institution.”
The modern era of military endorsements began in 1992 with the decision of Adm. William Crowe to back then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. This caused a stir, since Mr. Crowe had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“He was probably the most well-known of the retired military officers at the time, and more important, he had served under the president Clinton was campaigning against,” Feaver adds. “It would be like your colleague coming out and recommending your competitor.”
This has potentially damaging consequences, since it could prompt the president to cut the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of the room “so he won’t say anything against me later.”
Candidates have continued to seek the backing of former top military leaders in the years since, peaking in 2012 with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s collection of the endorsements of 500-plus generals and flag officers.
Military endorsements tend to be of greater value to Democratic candidates, who historically are more interested than Republicans in boosting their war-fighting bona fides. But even at the presidential level – particularly as they have ballooned in numbers – these endorsements “are not game changers, especially when you have multiple endorsees on either side competing against each other,” says Feaver.
McChrystal told the Elks Club audience that he had never endorsed a candidate before, and that he is not planning to run for office himself, adding that he is not a Democrat, Republican, or Independent. “That’s the kind of thing someone says up front when they know they are about to do something controversial,” he adds.
Still, despite his protest, some wondered if the move by the highly respected general signals his growing interest in political office.
“I don’t think this is an indicator that General McChrystal is planning to run for anything,” says Tom Tarantino, chief policy offer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “He may just be helping out a friend, and it’s certainly his right to do so.”