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Editors' Picks Interviews

A Conversation with Michael Mullen: On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the Obama administration; and the rules of intervention

Admiral Michael Mullen served as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007-2011 under Presidents Bush and Obama. As Chairman, he oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden and testified before the senate in support of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. He previously served in both the Vietnam and Gulf wars and was the 28th Chief of Naval Operations from 2005-2007. Since his retirement, Mullen has been a visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. 

Mullen: [The policy] got my attention and so I put a small group together to take a look at it historically. There hadn’t been much work on it since 1993 when the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was put in place. What I did find in my own field trips is that it’s important to remind people of the baseline, the average age of any military unit is 21 years old and notionally I couldn’t find anyone under 30 years old that thought it was a very important issue at all. 

The Politic: There’s a famous photo of you, president obama, VP biden, sec. Clinton, among others watching the Bin Laden raid as it occurred in 2011. Can you describe what was going through your mind at that specific moment?

Actually, I don’t know the moment. I ran into [the photographer, Pete Souza] a couple years ago. I specifically asked that question if he could find the timestamp, and he couldn’t. He got back to me and I think what he told me was that he took over a thousand pictures that night. So what was going on exactly at that moment, I’m not sure. 

The reason the photo is so famous and so good is that I think it captures the intensity of the moment. And we all understood it was really critical to the nation and to the world, in addition it was really critical to the president. I viewed his decision as pretty courageous because I thought it would basically bet the presidency. This happened in May of ’11 and the president was coming up for reelection in November of ’12, so if he had failed that night, I think it would have cost Obama the presidency.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you thought the killing of Solemeini was justified given the intelligence and threat that he posed to the U.S. and you called him a “legitimate target.” Given your experience, from a militaristic perspective, at what point is it strategic for the U.S. to escalate?

It was very clear to me that there was a constant, continuous build-up over many months with respect to the U.S. and Iran. We clearly were on a path getting closer and closer to war, which is dangerous. We haven’t had a communications link with Iran since 1979. So we have no way to really exchange ideas. If we get into a situation with Iran, having no way to communicate, the likelihood it comes out the way we want it is, I think, pretty low. 

I think we were closer to war than we realized. Fortunately, the powers that be made decisions which backed us away from it after the Solemeini killing. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, said that it was exquisite intelligence or it was the best intelligence they had. And by virtue of that I still think he’s a legitimate target. And a risky target, but a legitimate target. 

President Trump has publicly been at odds with the intelligence community on multiple occasions, personally attacked decorated veterans, and dismissed traumatic brain injuries as “headaches…not very serious.” Do you think this is appropriate behavior for a president, and do you think this is setting precedent for future executive relationships with the military?”

I have spoken for years about the U.S. military getting politicized. There’s nothing in Washington right now seemingly that can’t be politicized. The military leadership in particular has to keep the military out of politics, and do all they can and also protect their people. Having served in a political environment for four years, particularly one that seemed to be getting worse and worse over the years and is now that much more divisive, that just means we have to work harder to stay out of it. So when Lt. Col. Vindman raised his hand and walked into the middle of a political firestorm that’s a really dangerous situation to be in. He got chewed up in the end having done the right thing. It doesn’t surprise me.

You were chairman of the joint chiefs when the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy ended. Would you be able to describe the role you played in helping to end that policy and the impact that its removal has had?

I quite frankly linked that to their upbringing and to the fact that they had, as young people, had been both living with and accepting of gays and lesbians both through their teenage and adult lives. That was not the case obviously with people who had been around a lot longer so I certainly knew there would be resistance. I also believe this was not anything the civilian leadership, including the president, could do without the support from the military. So I needed a position on it. The opportunity came up in that February hearing to make a statement about it. I thought it was time so I made that statement. 

It was a pretty easy statement for me to make at that point because I believed it, and then it turned out most people believed that was a real turning point. I was supported strongly by Bob Gates who, years before that, made the change in the CIA to allow openly gay men and women to serve. I talked to my counterparts in other countries: Australia, U.K., Israel amongst others to see what the impact was that they’d been through and actually my U.K. counterpart said it best, having been through a lot of work and angst and media before they made the change.

With Russia’s encountered invasion of Crimea in 2014 and China’s growing militaristic influence, do you think either country will ultimately pose a tactical threat to the United States? If so, how, and how should the U.S. respond?

I’m much more worried about strategic threats than tactical threats. I think Russia is led by the most dangerous guy on the planet in Vladimir Putin. And the other most dangerous guy on the planet is Xi Jinping in China. I don’t believe Russia has the resources and the staying power to be a long-term strategic threat. But they’ve been pretty significant above expectations in the last decade or so and I think they’re going to try to continue to do that. Putin I think wants to return Russia to a great power status as much as he possibly can and his most significant investment in that regard.

In the case of China, I think the relationship between the U.S. and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. We’re never going to spend China out of a competition because their economy is too big and it’s too good like we did the Soviet Union. So we’re going to have to figure out how to make these economies work together. In the near term, we need to pay a lot of attention to the military stuff in the South China Sea, the kinds of things China is doing to rapidly advance on the military side are of concern. It’s a question of where Xi Jinping wants to go. I think generally speaking the Chinese leadership is of the mind to ask the question: is the authoritative approach to both leadership and governance right for the rest of the world? I think they would answer that it is. Ours would be the exact opposite of that.

If you had to give one piece of advice to leadership of both parties in congress and the president on the subject of foreign troop deployment, what would that advice be?

It has been far too easy to get into conflicts. We need to be much more careful about where we deploy, when we deploy, and how we deploy with more and more lethal capability, our troops. Diligence about that would be my highest priority.