October 18, 2012

Romney unveils list of retired brass supporters

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney unveiled a star-studded list of endorsements from some 300 retired general and flag officers, pushing the role of former Pentagon brass to the center of the campaign.

“As I listen to Mitt Romney, I am convinced that he ‘gets it,’ ” retired Marine Gen. James Conway, a former commandant, said in a statement released by the Romney campaign.

Other prominent names listed as members of Romney’s “Military Advisory Council” include retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led U.S. Central Command during the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; retired Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, former chief of U.S. Pacific Command; and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman.

A small cadre of retired senior officers publicly backs President Obama, including retired Adm. John Nathman, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August. However, the Obama campaign has not released a slate of endorsements like the one Romney issued on Oct. 17.

But a new study suggests the endorsements may not help Romney much at the polls in November. The Center for New American Security conducted a survey and found that Romney’s level of support remained unchanged when respondents were told that “most members of the military and veterans” support him.

According to the study, the opposite was true for Obama, whose support ticked up significantly when a different group of respondents were told that “most members of the military and veterans” support Obama.

The study’s authors say this is probably because many voters already associate the military with Republicans.

“Since voters might already expect veterans to support the GOP candidate, Republicans may not benefit much by the additional endorsement,” the study concluded.

“One reason might be long-standing Republican ‘issue ownership’ of foreign policy and national security during the past six decades,” the study said. “Surveys show that until 2012, voters have consistently claimed to trust a generic Republican leader more than a generic Democratic leader when it comes to national security and foreign policy.”

Polls show that Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy remained above 50 percent for more than a year after the military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. That rating has dipped below 50 percent in recent weeks since the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, has repeatedly urged retired officers to stay out of the political fray.

“Former and retired service members, especially generals and admirals, are connected to the military service for life,” Dempsey wrote on a Pentagon website in June. “When the title or uniform is used for partisan purposes, it can erode the trust relationship. We must all be conscious of this, or we risk adversely affecting the very profession to which we dedicated most of our adult life.”

Franks, who also endorsed George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention, issued a statement highly critical of Obama.

“Instead of playing politics with our military, [Romney] will strengthen our defense posture by reversing the president’s devastating defense cuts,” Franks said in a statement released by the Romney campaign. “The fact of the matter is that we cannot afford another four years of feckless foreign policy. We need level-headed leadership which will protect our interests and defend our values with clarity and without apology.”

For many years, retired military brass mostly stayed out of politics. But many experts say that changed in 1992, when President Clinton’s campaign collected dozens of military endorsements in an effort to compensate for Clinton’s lack of personal military experience.

That has intensified in recent years, especially in 2004 when many former military officers spoke out about the Bush Administration’s military policies and Democratic candidate John Kerry’s own experience in the Navy in Vietnam.

Some experts worry that senior officer endorsements threaten to politicize the military.

“There has been a lot of talk in the national security community about [how] this harms the reputation of the military as the neutral servant of the state,” said Richard Kohn, who teaches military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It also sends a very partisan message to the active-duty force that it is OK to be partisan.”