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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Admiral James Stavridis on Venezuela and Chief of Staff John Kelly

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The transcript:

HH: Joined now by Admiral James Stavridis. He is the author of the brand new book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, which is a Hugh Hewitt book club choice. If you saw the Admiral and I on MSNBC on Saturday, you know we really hit it off in that conversation, because we were talking about big subjects and big issues. Admiral, welcome back. I hope you had as much positive feedback as I did about that interview.

JS: I did indeed, and it was very wide-ranging, everything from our new chief of staff in the White House to how many destroyers we should have in the Navy. That’s the kind of interview to have.

HH: Well, unfortunately, we didn’t cover, and it sprung up on us, the fact that you were the Southern Command combatant commander before you went to lead NATO as the Supreme Allied Commander, before you wrote this book and took over the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. And all of a sudden, three days after we talk, Venezuela this Wednesday is in the front pages of a coup. What is your take on that, Admiral? You write at length about the Caribbean, and how its problems in Southern Command were complicated and require vigilance, and it’s not a combatant command. But this is a real crisis.

JS: Indeed, and unfortunately, I think it’s going to end badly as in a raging civil war in that country. And that’s going to turn into a significant maritime problem, because of the propensity of populations in crisis to turn to the sea to escape. So what you’re seeing today is a brutal crackdown on a legitimate opposition by the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. But there is going to be a great deal of fight coming back from that opposition, and I think we’re going to see potentially waves of refugees exiting Venezuela by sea.

HH: Now you say in your book on Page 227, Central America is the most violent region in the world, and certainly Venezuela is going to add to that. Do we stand back from this, Admiral? Or do we intervene as perhaps we would have done decades earlier, quickly with Marines?

JS: I think our smart money is not to intervene, Hugh. If we intervene, that will add fuel to the fire of Maduro, who will use that as yet another example, his words, of Yankee imperialism and intervention. We would be better served to work this one closely with the organization of American states, and particularly with Venezuela’s neighbors, Brazil and Colombia, both of whom have significant military capability. If this turns into a humanitarian intervention, it should be led by Latin America, not by the United States.

HH: So your successor at Southern Command is doing what right now, Admiral? Obviously, they’ve got an oil trade that is enormous, and a hugely busy port and coastal region. But what do you think So. Command is doing right now?

JS: First, he will be developing a series of contingency plans to deal with refugees. This is Admiral Kurt Tidd, the current Southern Commander. Secondly, he will be working with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on plans that can be used to respond in a humanitarian way in the country, again, unlikely, but possibly. Thirdly, he will be gathering intelligence and asking the Joint Chiefs of Staff for all the surveillance of overhead satellites and long term, long dwell aviation. Fourth, he will be looking at impact throughout the region on this, in other words, what would happen in Colombia, which is at a delicate moment in its national progress because of the, a good thing, the recent ending of the FARC and the insurrection there. But he will look at impact throughout the region. I think those are the four key tasks that Admiral Tidd will be undertaking.

HH: I am talking with Admiral James Stavridis, retired, author of Sea Power, a four star admiral, former Supreme Commander of NATO and former head of Southern Command. And it brings me, interestingly, you just mentioned Admiral Tidd, who was your successor a couple removed. John Kelly was also in that chain. Do you know Admiral Tidd? Did you mentor him?

JS: Admiral Tidd I know extremely well. He’s someone who was part of my team when I was a one star in the Pentagon. He was a newly-selected captain. He’s brilliant. He’s innovative. He understands both soft power and hard power. He was the J-3, Hugh, the operations officer for the joint staff, which is arguably the biggest COO job in the world. He is supremely competent.

HH: Now this brings me to something I sent you an email about. I heard from so many people that you have been mentoring over many years in the Navy after our interview on MSNBC. And it led me to write to you about I am impressed, and as a civilian, a bit surprised, at the level of mentorship that goes on in the military. It is so intentional. Would you expand on that, Admiral?

JS: It’s who we are and what we do, Hugh. And it begins at the service academies where each year as you ascend to become a first class senior, a junior, a second class midshipman, etc., you are taught to mentor those who are coming behind you. And that sometimes is very tough love, but it’s also finding out about them, knowing about their families, knowing where they’re from, engaging with them, making them successful. You come out of the academy, and the first thing you’re taught on the deck plates of your first ship, and you know this. You are taught to work with those coming behind you. And it just continues on and on, and by the time I was a four star officer, I had an electronic file with 250 different names of people I was actively mentoring and following, and I continue to do that today even on the other side of the active-retired line.

HH: You know, it’s so interesting to me. It’s like the coaching tree in the NFL is there’s an admiral’s tree and a general’s tree and an officer’s tree. Everybody, and below the general officers as well, mentoring other people above and below them. So what happens when one of your guys or women go off the rails? And you know, you are identified with that coaching tree person?

JS: There are extremely delicate moments that occur as a mentor when you have to make maybe the hardest judgment of all, Hugh, and that’s whether a particular officer’s career is worth salvaging, in which case you lean in. You try and pull them to the next level. You try and understand why the failure occurred. Or that it’s over, and it’s time to cut that person loose, and then you have to have a very vivid and immediate conversation with them so they understand that their upward mobility in the Navy is at an end. I’ve had a few of those moments, and I’m very happy about several of them. And some of them, I look back on with real regret thinking did I make the right decision or not. But the point is as a mentor, you have to be ready not only to make people succeed, but to let them know when the time has come for them to stop sailing on in the Navy.

HH: Now as a mentor, that works. As a colleague, you also have to be able to present very difficult views to friends and associates, and sometimes superiors. I’m thinking of John Kelly, your friend, now the new chief of staff, General Kelly having to give tough love to the President. How is that best done – in the quietest of voices or with a raised one?

JS: In the quietest of voices, and in the most private of ways. I think the biggest danger for John Kelly is that he succeeds too fast and arouses jealously on the part of the President. And so I think General Kelly has got to very much be low key, be off the radar, not on the ridgeline as he would say as a Marine. And I think he needs to do his counseling with the President in highly private settings. Boy, that is the ultimate, this can’t leak kind of conversation. I think if he does that, he’s got a better than even chance of succeeding. But he’s chosen a choppy body of water to try and sail through.

HH: When we come back the next couple of days with Admiral Stavridis, we will continue the conversation about the United States Navy. But take the opportunity right now to go to, click on the Book Club and get Sea Power – must-reads for reasons that you already know from my MSNBC and today’s conversation, and which we’ll expand on in the next two here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.


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