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Admiral James Stavridis On President Trump’s “Team of Leaders” At State, Defense, CIA, and NSA

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Admiral James Stavridis joined me this morning to discuss President Trump’s new foreign policy team:




HH: A special present for you on this holy day. I’ve got Admiral James Stavridis. He is the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. You can follow him on Twitter, @StavridisJ, and you can also get all of his wonderful books, including Sea Power and The Leader’s Bookshelf. Admiral, welcome back, it’s good to talk to you.

JS: Hey, Hugh, great to be on with you.

HH: I have to pass along a very unsolicited and unanticipated compliment. I was with Governor Doug Ducey in Arizona on Monday reviewing his new school violence plan with him, and looking over some of the legal stuff. And at the end of the hour-long meeting, he said by the way, I’ve just got to thank you for The Leader’s Bookshelf. It’s just the best such book I have ever read. And I don’t know if you know the Governor. He’s one of the best, if not the best, governor in America. But that’s quite a nice compliment.

JS: It really is. I know him by reputation, and although I’m not a native Arizonan, I actually went to high school in Arizona at McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona. So that’s a double nice compliment.

HH: Oh, when you get down there, you will enjoy him. He engages as you do – systematically, thoughtfully, and let’s go to that subject. I asked you to come and talk about the new team of leaders that the President has assembled as Mike Pompeo gets ready to take over at Foggy Bottom, Gina Haspel at CIA, John Bolton at the NSA joining a wide and deep bench at the Pentagon, and of course John Kelly at the White House. Let’s start with CIA Director Mike Pompeo heading to the State Department. As the commander-in-chief of NATO, supreme allied commander, as the Southern Command, you did a lot of diplomacy as well as military planning. What do you think of this choice?

JS: I think it’s a great choice, truly. And I’ve been telling people there’s a lot of focus on John Bolton going to the NSC. The big move here by far is Mike Pompeo. He will be the pivot between Jim Mattis and John Bolton. And I think he’ll fulfill that role very effectively, speaking of diplomacy. That’ll be some internal interagency diplomacy that I think will need to occur. But I think he’s got all the skills. He’ll start as a leader working from the inside out. You will see him gain the confidence of the State Department professionals quickly. He’ll work out to the interagency and build his relationships there, which are already quite strong coming out of CIA. Then, he’ll be ready to tackle some big diplomatic issues, and they are looming at him.

HH: Now I’ve described this as Mike Pompeo as President Trump’s right arm, James Mattis is his left hook, John Bolton and John Kelly are his corner men. And what do you think of that?

JS: I think that’s a good analogy. The question is going to be two parts on your setup. One is it’s not always good to have two corner men unless they’re really in sync. So I think you’re correct to put a premium on how Kelly and Bolton end up getting along. And I know them both, and they’re pretty different personalities. So that’s one to watch. I think Mattis as a left hook is exactly right, and Pompeo is going to be the stiff right that comes out and flashes out. So I think it’s a good analogy.

HH: I have to tell our audience when James Mattis, the General now turned Secretary of Defense greeted John Bolton at the Pentagon yesterday, he said I heard you were the devil and I wanted to meet you, and Bolton laughed. That’s pretty good. In fact, let’s play it for the audience, cut 1:

JM: Ambassador Bolton.

JB: Mr. Secretary.

JM: It’s good to meet you.

JB: It’s good to see you. Thank you for inviting me over.

JM: Thanks for, oh, no, thanks for coming, and it’s good to finally meet you. I’ve heard that you’re actually the Devil incarnate, and I wanted to meet you.

JB: (laughing)

HH: What do you make of that, Admiral Stavridis?

JS: Oh, it’s classic Jim Mattis. I’ve known him for 20 years. I’ll tell you really the important thing is actually less that comment, I’ll come back to it, but it’s the fact that he came down on the steps to meet John Bolton. He’s the cabinet official. He, Jim Mattis, he’s also driving the biggest department on the planet Earth with, you know, two million people working for him. The fact that he would come down on those steps to greet Bolton as an equal is a very powerful signal, and a deeply meaningful one, and a sincere one, because that’s Jim Mattis. And then secondly, the good humor, the good one-liners, Jim Mattis to a T. So I think he will do his best to make it work, and I suspect John Bolton, whom I don’t know as well, met a couple of times, but one smart cookie, let’s hope that’s a good relationship. The nation needs that.

HH: I’ve known Ambassador Bolton very, very well, and have interviewed him scores of times and done dinners with him and all that. I think it is a lot of brainpower in this group.

JS: I agree.

HH: And it reminded me, I met one of America’s greatest living Americans, George Schultz, on Tuesday up there. It reminded me of when Schultz was surrounded by James Baker at Treasury, and Howard Baker as the Chief of Staff. And he had great people over at the CIA, which brings me to Gina Haspel. I do not know anything about her except that every agency veteran who’s in the game has called to be on the show to praise her. What do you think of a 30-plus year covert operator and the first female to lead the Agency coming up through the ranks, as well as the controversy, alleged controversy, surrounding her time in Thailand?

JS: Yeah, well, the controversy certainly is not alleged. It is a controversy. The question is whether or not we ought to be sufficiently concerned about that to stand in the way of her confirmation.

HH: Can I correct for a second, Admiral? I say alleged because there’s some pushback on whether she was there in Thailand when the enhanced interrogation techniques occurred. I’m getting that from the Agency. That’s why I said I’ll wait and see what comes out, but go ahead.

JS: Fair enough. And I think the Congress will do a good job of bringing that out. What I will say is I support her confirmation. I believe that she is, has earned the position. I think it would be a tremendous signal to put an operator in the job. This reaches back to Robert Gates, Bob Gates, who was, came up through the ranks himself. Gina’s also a field operator. That’s a very strong signal. And she has, in every sense, would be a standard bearer as a woman to take the job. Those are a powerful set of plusses. There are certainly questions to be raised, but I support her. I think to my knowledge, pretty much all of the living CIA directors have supported her. And I think she absolutely should be the next director of the CIA.

HH: Well, this brings us, then, to the confirmation process. As we know, State’s pretty empty. Between eight and a dozen senior appointees are vacant. A number of our embassies, including Germany, which continues to go through crises after crises and has been waiting for Rick Grenell, who’s gotten out of committee for a year, what is your message to the Senate, Admiral? You’re kind of viewed as a centrist on these messages. Don’t we need to step up and man up and woman up across the world?

JS: We absolutely do. And in particular, the ambassadors to these crucial countries, we just can’t do this North Korea thing without a competent ambassador in South Korea. We need an ambassador in Australia. We need an ambassador in Turkey. We need one in Egypt, on and on and on. And I really do call on the Senate to accelerate and also where there have been gaps in pushing nominees out of the executive branch, they have some work to do as well. So let’s get on it, and let’s make this, as we always say about foreign policy, something that controversy stops at the water’s edge. We need to come together, just like we were talking about a team for national security. We need a team for diplomacy.

HH: Talk a little bit about what doesn’t get much coverage. You know the Pentagon so well. I don’t know how the combatant commander changeups are going, where they are. I know Joe Dunford is a great chairman. I hope he is reappointed as chairman for a second term. That’s the limit under the law, Joe Dunford, and by James Mattis. But what is the, what is your view of how the combatant commander changes have come?

JS: It’s a very good lineup right now. Scap, Scapartotti, General Scaparrotti over in Europe, is our supreme allied commander, is absolutely fabulous. Admiral Harry Harris as PACOM, Hugh, you may know, is headed to be the ambassador to Australia.

HH: Yes.

JS: See our conversation earlier. He’ll be terrific in that role. Behind him is another brilliant admiral coming in, Phil Davidson. Those are kind of the two key positions. And you’re right to really put your finger on Joe Dunford. He is superb, a graduate of the Fletcher School where I’m currently the dean. He worked for me in Afghanistan as my Afghan commander having taken that position from John Allen. I know him deeply and intimately. It’s a terrific uniform military team, and here’s the key, Hugh. You never hear anything about them. They are off the ridgeline, out of the politics. They’re very content to let Secretary Mattis do what he needs to do in the political realm. That’s the kind of civil-military balance you need.

HH: Now I want to talk about the Department of State, and we agree on the need to move on the ambassadors. I think Rick Grenell should be the first one confirmed coming out of the gate. But the State Department, you need the T. That’s the undersecretary for security. You need, I don’t know if he’s going to keep the P, Brian Hook, who’s a very good appointee, but I don’t know what Mike Pompeo plans to do. I haven’t talked to Mike Pompeo. What do you think we need to look for in these senior positions which inexplicably are empty?

JS: I think what Director and hopefully Secretary Pompeo needs to do, as I mentioned earlier, is kind of lead from the inside out, Hugh. And what I mean by that is a very powerful first signal for him to send would be to fill these jobs as much as he can legitimately with career foreign service officers. And that might mean bringing some recently retired ambassadors back. And there are some terrific ones, people like Bill Burns, currently head of the Carnegie Foundation, Nick Burns up at Harvard. I could go on and on. There are just terrific senior folks out there. Bring one or two of those in, and make that signal demonstration, and then bring a couple of current foreign service officers in, and then fill in with some of the political appointees. But where Secretary Tillerson went wrong is he just brought in a bunch of outsiders, he cloistered himself off from them. He did not lead from the inside out. I know Mike Pompeo will do so.

HH: Now my last question has to do with the National Security Council. There are two models – the Scowcroft model and the Kissinger model. And I think John Bolton’s going to be inclined to the Kissinger model where you are not only coordinating, you are making policy, and you’re going to be the last person talking to the President often with General Kelly in the room, as Kissinger would be Haldeman in the room. And that is a different kind of approach. I don’t, I think I’ve caught comments of you on Morning Joe that you don’t like that approach, you prefer the Scowcroft approach, am I right?

JS: You are absolutely correct, and the reason is because no one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together. And that, I think, is potentially the Achilles’ heel for John Bolton. And I think he needs to consciously, consciously adopt that model that says let’s get all the views on the table. And sure, his job is to advise the President, but he shouldn’t put his thumb on the scales too heavily, because that will create pushback from people like Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo. So I think he’d be much better served taking a Scowcroft-like approach. And hey, both Scowcroft and Kissinger are alive and well. He ought to call them up and talk to them and ask their opinions.

HH: Great suggestion. Well, quick one minute. Russia, we’ve hit rock bottom.

JS: Yeah.

HH: We’ve thrown out 60 of theirs, they’ve thrown out 60 of ours, closed our embassy, our consulate in St. Petersburg. Europe is considering even more sanctions. What’s your advice to everyone right now having been the supreme allied commander in Europe?

JS: I think we ought to take kind of a 60 day timeout with Russia and just let the dust settle. Then, we ought to undertake a policy, Hugh, that says confront where we must – Syria, cyber, Ukraine, but cooperate where we can, and start looking for some admittedly small areas of cooperation and try and build back so that we don’t stumble into another cold war. We don’t need that. We are perilously close to doing so.

HH: Admiral James Stavridis, always a pleasure, and I recommend to everyone, as Governor Ducey did to me last week, The Leader’s Bookshelf, and of course, Sea Power. Admiral, have a great weekend.

JS: You, too, Hugh. Let’s do it again. Bye bye.

HH: You bet.

End of interview.


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