Time was, you could highlight Republican principles on a flash card, particularly when it came to national security. At the 1980 Republican National Convention— when Republican clarity about the party’s ideals was at a peak — Americans knew where we stood, and the Reagan-Bush administrations followed through with policies that gave life to those principles.
I am supporting Biden because he, more than Trump, embodies American — and even Republican — national security principles now.
The premise, as laid out in the party platform, started with the proposition that international order created peace and prosperity for Americans. That “peace through strength” meant a formidable military presence around the globe, an asset to us and a deterrent to our enemies. That fair trade was a motivation to overcome differences. That democracy and human rights were legitimate objectives worth persuading others around the globe to embrace. And that to achieve these results, we would stand by our allies and together we could restrain those nations, like Russia, that wished to harm us.
These were simple, bedrock principles — ones for which there wasn’t much daylight between Republicans and Democrats — and they guided us well through the American century. Tragically, it appears these Republican principles have been lost. Nothing makes that clearer than the lack of a 2020 Republican platform to frame the ideas Republicans stand behind. Rather, the party has instituted a blind endorsement of President Donald Trump and his “America First” priorities, whatever those may be.
This absence of principles, above all else, is what drove me and more than 70 other national security leaders from previous Republican administrations to conclude that former Vice President Joe Biden would be better to lead and preserve our national security than a president who claims to be a Republican, but one that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t recognize.
As the secretary of the Navy in the George H.W. Bush administration, it pains me to admit this. Not just because I believe that the GOP truly stood for something great and that previous Republican presidents acted on principles, but also because the absence of any principles puts our nation and the world in tremendous danger.
Finding examples is as simple as pointing at the map. Take Europe, a continent full of American allies that forms the bulwark of peace and prosperity in the West. Trump’s stance has been to threaten to pull out of NATO, an alliance we painstakingly constructed over the last seven decades to secure our nation’s defense at our allies’ shoreline, whose members have stood with us as we brought down the Soviet Union, liberated Kuwait and fought the war against terrorism together following 9/11.
At times, Trump has taken damaging action in line with this posture, such as his confounding decision in a fit of pique in July to pull nearly 12,000 troops out of Germany — and, in the process, to weaken our deterrent against Russia, make it more difficult for our troops to move quickly to global hot spots and complicate care for our wounded service members at the Landstuhl hospital in Germany.
We have alienated our allies and been suckered by our enemies further afield, as well. We abruptly canceled joint military exercises with South Korea, a vital economic partner that presidents of both parties have relied on to check North Korean aggression. Instead, Trump “fell in love” with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un and allowed him to move ever closer to building nuclear weapons that are increasingly capable of reaching our nation.
Thankfully, no South Koreans have (yet) lost their lives as a result of our betrayal, but the same cannot be said for the Kurds in the Middle East. We removed U.S. forces that were keeping the Turkish military from moving against our Kurdish allies — allies who helped us defeat the Islamic State militant group — allowing Turkey to displace 100,000 Kurds and kill many more. In turn, the region is even more chaotic and now another incubator for yet more terrorist activities.
Yet the president blithely uses U.S. military forces as a threat here at home — against our own people — to quell civil unrest. This was among the motivations that drove early American revolutionaries to rebel against the monarchy that repressed them. And it is an instinct that U.S. military service members recoil against because they swore to defend the United States, not to be used as a blunt instrument against their own people.
My concern about the abandonment of Republican principles in the Trump era is not about wistful nostalgia for an earlier time, however, or even a vague desire to “do the right thing.” Today, all of America’s security challenges are international and require an international response. The COVID-19 pandemic proved, once again, that viruses do not respect international barriers and that “fortress America” is not a fortress at all. What happens in a market in Wuhan affects us here, as the nearly 180,000 people COVID-19 has killed in the United States can only attest to from the grave.
In addition to working together to stop a deadly disease, we need our allies to join us to combat terrorism, ameliorate or adapt to climate change and stem mass migration. But it seems there’s no ally we won’t alienate. Trump has started diplomatic spats with Canada, Australia, Germany, France and, somehow, even Denmark and Sweden. These incidents have consequences for American national security leaders who have forged working relationships over three generations and report that our allies no longer trust us.
It seems there’s no ally we won’t alienate. Trump has started diplomatic spats with Canada, Australia, Germany, France and, somehow, even Denmark and Sweden.
I am supporting Biden because he, more than Trump, embodies American — and even Republican — national security principles now. As President George H.W. Bush said, “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle.” As President Dwight Eisenhower said, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” As President George W. Bush said, “We can only see the reality of America’s need by seeing it through the eyes of the threatened, oppressed and disenfranchised.”
These are all beliefs espoused by Republican presidents who have lived and acted on them. It was only under Trump that the Republican Party started behaving as though principles didn’t matter.
I have not always agreed with Biden, and it’s unlikely I will always agree with him if he is elected president. But when disagreements do occur, I will have returned to the ranks of the loyal opposition and will be able to express my objections and prescriptions by appealing to the deeply held principles that have guided him throughout his career in public service. Those differences will likely be due to conflicting views over policy, and at least the Democrats put out a party platform of policies to debate.