Gen. Richard Myers (USAF, Ret.), former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and author of the new book Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Security, was interviewed last week by HUMAN EVENTS. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.
Jed Babbin, editor of HUMAN EVENTS: You came out from Kansas, as did Dwight Eisenhower. You’ve served in combat. You’ve managed, you’ve led, you became the President’s chief military advisor. A lot of people in the civilian world think management is leadership, and I think both you and I would agree that there are differences. A leader has to not just do things, a leader has to be things. Give us a little bit of your philosophy on leadership.
Gen. Myers: I think, simply put, a leader has to make things happen, and to do that you’ve got to be proactive. You’ve got to harness the strength of the people around you. You’ve got to realize that their strength is your strength, that no one person can do it all, that we’re all in this together. So through teamwork, through collaboration, you can get things done. I think it requires a great deal of trust in your subordinates for that matter, that we’re all working toward the same objective. It’s easier I think in the Air Force and the military because we were kind of working towards the same objective. I think a common misperception about the military is that leadership is giving orders. “Well, you do that.” It’s not at all like that. I’m sure it’s a lot like your business where when there are major decisions, you sit around the table and try to work out those issues around the table, and everybody, if you’re a good leader, you let everybody have a say. Because in there, there might be a nugget that is worth pursuing, and its probably not going to come from your brain just because you’re at the top of whatever chart there is. It’s probably going to come from somebody else’s brain who’s been thinking about this, maybe in a different way, maybe more thoroughly. …
Especially when you’re dealing with national security, I think leaders have to drive towards some result, toward some common vision, you have to inspire confidence and you take risks. You balance risk and you take risk and if you’re going to do something in this world, I mean there’s going to be some people that say “right on,” there’s going to be other people that say, you know, “Why in the heck did you do that?” But that’s how you change things.
Babbin: A thread that runs through this book and darn near every paragraph, is your commitment to integrity. You can’t lead without setting that sort of example or without having it in yourself, can you?
Myers: I guess you can, but I don’t think anyone wants to follow anybody that they don’t believe is always trying to do the right thing, and it’s so important in the military. I think I talk in the book about the military culture, and it’s made up of lots of different elements, and one of them is the absolute requirement for integrity because you count on the woman on your left or the man on your right to do what they say their going to do, to be trained the way they’re supposed to be trained, sometimes for your life, sometimes for mission accomplishment. So you have to trust other folks to do what they say they’re going to do, and through that process, the longer you’re in, the ones you can’t trust are gone, and you wind up with a group around you that you can trust just absolutely. And it’s one of the things that kept me in the military, being around these people that had this great integrity. You knew when they told you something you could believe it.
Babbin: Let’s go right to the heart of the matter. You flew with distinction in combat in Vietnam: you flew the “Wild Weasel” mission, and that was not a real safe way to make a living. You came back to a country that was divided and the military not getting a lot of respect. What were your biggest lessons from Vietnam? What do you think we should have learned from that conflict?
Myers: The biggest one is if you’re going to go to war that the leadership needs to get the country behind the effort. I mentioned this in the book, we had [Vietnam era Secretary of State] Dean Rusk up at the Army War College back in 1980 and he said to us that there was an effort not to do that. They thought that if we got the population of the United States too much behind this effort in Southeast Asia that it could go too far and it could antagonize the Chinese and the Russians. So it was sort of a deliberate decision they made and then, I think, the relationship between the military and the media was allowed to deteriorate at that time. Now there was certainly some great reporting and there were some things done with — in terms of the military’s actions — in terms of reporting to the media that weren’t very good either. That led to embedding reporters during major combat in Iraq, that experience led to recommending to the secretary that we embed reporters.
Babbin: In terms of the first part of that, getting the population involved and dedicated to it: Did President Bush make the same mistake after 9/11 about telling us to go shopping and not worry our pretty little heads about it?
Myers: I think to a degree, earlier, the administration could have done a better job of bringing the U.S. population along as part of it, because on the one hand there’s your military out there in Iraq, 30, 40, 50 people killed a week with lots wounded. And life was going on in the United States pretty much like nothing’s wrong, and we have this huge threat. I surely can’t speak for President Bush, but I think if you ask him today he’d say yes, we should have found a way to bring the American people along with these efforts and explain. Because when he finally decides that it’s important to do, it’s getting harder to do now because political backlash is building up. I think both sides, by the way, both political sides of the aisle were responsible for this very vitriolic debate that didn’t inform the American public, and now the bully pulpit is not as tall as it used to be and it’s hard to get folks to rally to the cause — it was very difficult.
Babbin: One of the things you talk about in the book is the failure to find WMD and the intelligence difficulties. One of the questions that I’ve been thinking about, ever since the 9/11 Commission came out with its report, was the wisdom of creating the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) [as] the organization of intelligence. With [the] Goldwater-Nichols [Act], we all became purple-suiters: everybody in the military was going to act jointly. It seems to me that the intelligence community still suffers from the disunity that the military had prior to Goldwater-Nichols. Looking back on it, would it have been wiser to do something along those lines in the intelligence community? And maybe should it still be done?
Myers: I basically agree with your premise. I think our intelligence community kind of grows up in stovepipes. It is better today than it was prior to 9/11 because of the congressional act of the Intel Reorganization Act, it’s better. We have a Director of National Intelligence and he has, or she as the case may be someday, the power to try to integrate our intelligence apparatus, I think, in a way that would be very very helpful. There’s been some of that in my view, not enough of that.
It’s almost like they were immune to Goldwater-Nichols. Well, first of all, it’s not all military. There’s a lot of civilian pieces of our intelligence agencies, but I think that was what Congress had in mind, certainly what the Bush administration had in mind when they came up with the Defense Intelligence Reorganization Act, was to try to get some cross flow there. We build up our intelligence capability much like we build up our military, which is now operationally seamless across the services. We were able to operate, and I think major combat in Iraq was sort of the last chapter, maybe not the last last chapter, but the most recent chapter in that. It went 30 days and Saddam’s apparatus falls. So yes, I think there’s more to do, and hopefully Admiral Blair as the new DNI can make some headway there.
Babbin: One of the things I think that’s most important about your book is that it says for the first time a lot of things that haven’t been said before in terms of how our thinking about the war was going, is going now. One of the things that struck me very early in the book is that you said the definition of victory vexed you throughout your tenure as chairmen, and you really didn’t quite resolve it before you left. Can you tell us, how is the definition of the enemy and how is the definition of victory now in your mind, as a private citizen, who are we fighting, and how to we win?
Myers: Just to go back to your question for a minute. This was asymmetric warfare. And it’s always more difficult, I think, in asymmetric warfare to define what victory is — and since there were not front lines and since our adversary didn’t have ships, tanks, airplanes or infrastructure. I mean, it’s very difficult to say are we doing well. Are we not doing well? What is the measure of success?
In the large sense and in the specific sense of Iraq and Afghanistan, I devote a chapter to the fact that I think we have not identified the enemy as perhaps as we should have. I called it a global insurgency. And al Qaeda is a part of this, but other violence extremist groups that are either aligned philosophically or maybe aligned just tangentially to al Qaeda’s views are trying to delegitimize other governments out there. That’s their aim. I mean it is an insurgency. And they do it by picking on unpopular governments. We see a little of this going on in Pakistan today, militants are fairly active and there’s some resonance because people are not happy with the government, and so they try to delegitimize governments and put in their own violent and extreme view of Islam as a replacement, and my contention is unless we identify this enemy properly, then we can’t come up with a strategy.
We need a broad-based international strategy to defeat violent extremism. Because this country remembers 9/11, that was our last terrorist attack. There have been 30 since then around the world that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and they don’t go unnoticed by us, but they’re not like the memory of 9/11. But we’ve got to deal with that — otherwise our children and out grandchildren aren’t going to be able to travel the world or be safe in planes or buses or trains or buildings or whatever.
Babbin: One of the points that you make in the book — and I think you’re talking here about the 1998 strikes responding to the embassy bombings — and you say, “These very attacks, however, made us appear weak, desperate and inept to our adversaries…the results of these strikes were meager, our intelligence sources could find no hard evidence that the car factory had in fact been producing chemical weapons” and so forth. In terms of responding to these, do we need to be more careful? More bold in striking back?
Myers: That is a great question, and I should have gone to that. I think the way that we respond to violent extremism is through using all the national power — military, political, diplomatic, economic informational. These elements of national power we can harness, in fact, we need international power, and that the military instrument will not be the predominate instrument. It will be predominantly political and economic and informational, and I go on to say, the real issue here is the debate within Islam and how its going to accommodate the modern world, and some want to go left and some want to go right and our voice in that debate is not welcome. In the West, that’s not our debate, that’s their debate.
All we need to do, I think, is say ok, you can deal with this, the Muslim world can deal with this, and there are red lines which you can’t go beyond our view. And one of those would be the use of violent extremism, terrorism, to any end. But other than that, figure your way forward. Come to some accommodation with your religion and the modern world, but extremism can’t be apart of that. That would be our only thing probably that we would have any right to say. It’s their debate and our instruments of power military would certainly play a part but it’s those other instruments that’ll be predominant.
Babbin: One of the things that struck me most in the book was you say very clearly, “Those countries that sponsor terrorism must stop,” and then you go on to talk about compelling them to do so one way or another, as you just said. That is a lot like what I wrote in a column on 9/11/01 that was published on 9/12. I said, “The enemy we are facing are the nations that sponsor terrorism.” Can we win this war without ending state sponsorship of terrorism?
Myers: As long as violent extremists have a safe haven, safe harbor somewhere, the answer is no. And that could be, by the way, in our country, it could be, we know al Qaeda did some of their work in Germany. Free countries, people can come do things until they break the law or do something violent. There’s not much you can do about that. But yes, there are countries like Iran that sponsors terrorism. I don’t think you can ever envision peace in the Middle East without Iran accommodating Israel. They just don’t believe in the state of Israel. They’re going to put their energy and resources behind keeping that stirred up. I don’t see any hope of peace as long as militants in Pakistan can have some control over the border area or at least keep the government out of the border region with Afghanistan you really can’t have true peace in Afghanistan. I’m not saying Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism. I don’t believe that. They don’t have as much control over some of those regions as they need to have. So it goes on, as long as they’re safe haven, and that’s one of the big dangers with Afghanistan going back to a totally failed state status and a lot of folks would puddle there. I think President Obama made that point pretty clear when he rolled out his Afghanistan strategy, which was very gratifying to hear. I think he has a very good understanding of it.
Babbin: One of the things I’m hearing from you and I read in the book — I think was taken up by your successor Gen. Pace in his chairman’s guidance right after he took over — he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, the ideological war is just as important as the kinetic war.
Babbin: And what we say is almost as important as what we do. Do you agree with that, and, if so, how should we be fighting the ideological war? It appears to me as a layman we aren’t doing much, far less well.
Myers: I would generally agree with General Pace, and I think that what we do kinetically can have an impact. I mean, how we’re perceived, how the U.S. is perceived, how the West is perceived is important. An incident like Abu Ghraib hurt us terribly. The whole perception of, what do you all stand for? And if innocent men women and children are killed in our raids to go after bad people, some of that will happen, but it shouldn’t happen very often. You’ve got to be very very careful.
This is about, I don’t like the phrase, but it’s about winning hearts and minds, and I think one of the reasons we are reasonably well tolerated in Iraq and Afghanistan is that our military and our coalition forces have behaved honorable. They’ve done a very good job, and so they tolerate these infidels with rifles in their backyard and friendships are formed.
The mayor of one of the Anbar cities came back to the states to try to drum up business. He wanted to go see the Marine colonel that was in his area, and they had dinner together, they spent several days together. These are friendships that build up over time that are just so important and indicative of the way our military behaves and is perceived generally.
But our message needs to be to the moderate side of the Muslim world, and it needs to encourage them through political economic development to figure out the way forward without succumbing to the extreme views of the violent — I guess is the way I’d put it — and I think we can do that. But I don’t think our voice is welcome in this debate. We have to be encouraging, but we can’t be telling them how to do their business.
We have to make sure that everything we do, and Guantanamo — I don’t think there’s been any torture at Guantanamo, but the world thinks that’s the torture capital of the world. And some would say there’s torture, but I don’t think there’s been any torture at Guantanamo. There’s certainly been interrogation of a few people, but not the level of torture, and yet there’s that perception. Should we close Guantanamo? Probably, because that’ll help that perception dissipate. With all those folks down there, the 200 and something that are just so violent that if you let them go they’ll slit your throat if they could. That’s a problem I think the Obama administration is certainly wrestling with that.
Babbin: I remember your characterization of some of those guys at one point as something to the effect that they’d chew through the hydraulic lines of an aircraft in order to kill the pilot.
Myers: I think it was on 60 Minutes or something, they were interviewing one of the CIA interrogators who had interrogated one of the high up al Qaeda ,and they got to know each other. I said, “Did you get to know each other,” and he said “Oh sure, we did.” “And so Jim, did you ever asked him what’d he’d do if you released him?” And he said, “I did, and he said, well, I’d have to come kill you and your family because that’s what God wants me to do.” I mean these are people, he says there’s no animosity against you, you may be a fine man, my god tells me to come kill you and your family and advance the cause.…
I tell a story in here about asking Dan Rather to hold some picture of Abu Ghraib back…I’m not critical of Dan at all but people have their opinions of Dan Rather all over the map, but he was a good reporter, and because of the relationship he held these pictures for two weeks, which was helpful at that time frame because we had other things going on. It eventually got down to being a business deal because he says, “Hey, ABC’s got em. I gotta go with them.” That’s life, and so there we go. So it wasn’t, we’ll keep them off the air forever, it’s we’ll try to buy you some time.
I worry a little bit, newspapers, they may not be perfect but at least they have editors, they have standards, they do check down through things. If we’re going to have to rely on less professional media, without professional standards, then I worry about our democracy because this has been fundamental. We need to understand how fundamental this profession is to our democracy. And that’s why I, when you open yourself up to the media, like with the embedding program which I did as chairman, you are going to take risks, you’re going to have to live with the good, the bad, and the ugly. But that’s ok. The American people need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think we’ll have more good than bad and ugly, but when bad and ugly happen, at least we’ll have the relationships to have another perspective of the problem told.
Babbin: More evidence of Richard Myers’ integrity.
Myers: Well, I don’t want to overdo that but it was important to me. My parents were good role models. There was a spanking in there or two in there that got my mind right. I was talking to somebody the other day, and he was a fairly successful person in the media and he said, “Well I was spanked too. It didn’t seem to hurt me," and I said I watch my children bring up their kids and boy they are…
Babbin: It’s a little different, isn’t it?
Myers: It is different, it’s ok. It’s alright actually when they’re with grandpa.
Babbin: Grandpa lays down the law?
Myers: Oh no, I’m a softie.
Babbin: Your job is to spoil them.
Myers: Yeah, I’d like to lay down the law, but it’s just too much fun.
[General Richard B. Myers, (USAF, Ret.) is the author of Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Security.]