Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro on War and Politics

A review of Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro's new book On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington's Beltway

By Michael Goldfien

In a political climate disdainful of the Washington establishment, retired Major General Arnold Punaro wears his insider status as a badge of honor. Following his military service in Vietnam, Punaro joined the staff of legendary Georgia Senator Sam Nunn as an intern, eventually becoming a top advisor and staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Yet despite his insider status, Punaro's memoir, On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington's Beltway, does not tell tales of lurid corruption, self-interest, or detachment from the plight of the average American. Rather, it engages readers with Punaro's story of earnest public service. One that, in 2016, is both reassuring and disconcerting.

Punaro's book is reassuring in that it offers a positive view of sacrifice for country, as well as bipartisan governance. On War and Politics begins in Vietnam, where Punaro--then a young officer--is wounded, only to see a fellow Marine killed coming to his aid. The author describes this experience with both deep gratitude and remorse. "I began to wish he hadn't come after me. In a few days Marines in dress blues would be knocking on his family's door. They wouldn't know what he'd done for me [or] how he'd died." Punaro says that, in spending his professional life working to reform the Pentagon, he sought to make himself "worthy of" this sacrifice and to make sure that soldiers "do not give up their lives in vain."

When Punaro returns from Vietnam, the battle eventually shifts to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. Yet his fight in the Senate is not one against enemies, but rather among friendly rivals, each attempting to help their respective constituents and improve the administration of the Pentagon. Frequently, Punaro and his colleagues succeed. The Senate passed, for example, the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act with a 95-0 vote. As outlined by Punaro, Goldwater-Nichols strengthened civilian control of the military; made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the top military advisor to the president; streamlined the chain of command; put greater weight on the strategic and contingency planning; and "intensified the development of joint doctrine, training, and personnel." This was Republicans and Democrats coming together to promote smart reform and oversight.

While Punaro's memoirs are reassuring in showing what is possible, they are also disconcerting in the way that his experience working in the Senate contrasts with the Washington political battlefield that we see today. Punaro lauds the ability of his Senate colleagues to subordinate politics to the national interest--to make politics stop at the water's edge. The truth is that while partisan politics has always influenced foreign policy, it has gotten worse in recent years. Instead of serious oversight, there are endless hearings on faux scandals like Benghazi. Instead of a tough but fair confirmation process, it is increasingly undignifying and politicized.

Worse, many current members of Congress seem unable to adhere to one of Punaro's chief "lessons learned" from his Senate experience: following one's "moral compass." In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump broke with decades of bipartisan consensus on NATO, nuclear non-proliferation, and other key foreign policy issues. Dozens of the leading conservative foreign policy experts--many risking their own career prospects--signed a letter declaring Trump not "qualified" to be president. Yet few Republicans in Congress could bring themselves to take a strong stand against Trump's views, much less unendorse him. This includes two of the GOP's rising foreign policy stars: Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about interviewing Sen. Cotton about Donald Trump's foreign policy vision and watching the former "contort himself in embarrassing ways to avoid telling the truth about his party's candidate for president." Sen. Rubio, for his part, said during the GOP primary that an "erratic individual" such as Donald Trump could not be trusted with the nuclear codes, only to end up supporting his candidacy nonetheless. It is hard to imagine the giants of the Senate described by Punaro compromising on their principles so easily.

If you want understand how committed legislators and public servants govern, read On War in Politics. Unfortunately, the types of public servants that Punaro lauds in the book appear to be losing today's battle inside the beltway.

Michael Goldfien is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.

On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington's Beltway, published by the Naval Institute Press (October 15, 2016)