The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
Anyone personally appointed by the president of the United States to a position of high trust and responsibility in foreign and defense policy swears to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, has the FBI confirm his or her patriotism, and accepts a good-faith obligation as a public servant to serve the interests of the American people. But that is not all. Senior appointments entail an obligation of loyalty to the president who appointed you. That is not the same as unlimited allegiance, much less subservient obedience or blind faith. It does not exclude other obligations to Congress, the taxpayers, or one's department. But it is an obligation, nevertheless -- one that, once accepted, should not be lightly abandoned.
This charge is more than a legal obligation arising out of an employer-employee relationship. It is even more than loyalty to an impersonal administration or "team," though that may well be part of it. Conversely, it is more than a matter of friendship, for it applies equally to those who have a close relationship with the president and those who do not. It is essentially a moral commitment to that president as president, to respect his leadership, reciprocate his confidence and trust, and faithfully support his final decisions, even -- or especially -- when they are under attack.
Questions about the meaning and limitations of loyalty to the president were raised anew by the recent legal and political imbroglio in Washington arising out of President Clinton's sexual misconduct. In a futile effort at concealment, he lied not only under oath and to the public but also to his cabinet and White House staff. His secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, and other top aides were in effect dispatched to repeat his denials to the news media, the grand jury investigating his activities, and representatives of foreign governments. Several months later, when the truth was out, their pain was palpable.
Yet not one appointee resigned. Reportedly, only one mildly rebuked the president. Several told others of their sense of betrayal, sorrow, shame, or anger over their forced grand jury appearances -- but almost never spoke publicly to the press. Some appointees were deemed "gullible" for believing him, "gutless" for not leaving him, or "foolishly loyal" for remaining silent. Yet former Clinton appointees who spoke negatively to the press about his actions were labeled "ungrateful and disloyal."
The resulting commentaries on loyalty to the president can be divided into two schools. One maintains that loyalty in general is an antiquated trait that has largely fallen into disuse. Evidence of this proposition abounds. In the more cynical, materialistic 1980s and 1990s, few pay attention to such lofty concepts as honor, steadfastness, and fidelity. A more mobile workforce has become accustomed to slipping the bonds of devotion to former mentors, employers, and friends and finds time only for acquaintances. Children no longer grow up unshakable fans of "hometown" sports teams because they seldom have a "hometown," and the star players -- and even the franchises themselves -- leave to pursue greater riches elsewhere. Memoirs betraying the secrets of former confidants, spouses, or lovers have been highly successful; unsurprisingly, books by recent administration officials have not all been discreet, much less supportive.
Years ago, loyalty to the chief was both taught and enforced by big-city political organizations built on unswerving fealty to the local leader and the patronage, promotions, and perquisites that came with it. Among federal employees in the pre-civil service days, William Howard Taft once wrote, "even the humblest charwoman . . . felt a throb of deep personal interest in the political health of the President." But today's political organizations are too weak to provide any meaningful reward or inspiration for the faithful, much less any discipline for those who are not.
The other current school of media commentary finds the principle of loyalty to the president not so much forgotten and underutilized as all too present and overrated. Loyalty is derided as a Mafia-like code of silence that prevents current and former advisers from criticizing unconscionable presidential actions -- an instrument of "political serfdom" that stifles disagreement within an administration and keeps appointees from either resigning in protest or speaking out in public. Kai Bird's recent book on the Bundy brothers and Vietnam criticizes them and other "wise men . . . so steeped in the Establishment's culture of discretion that values loyalty over dissent" that they could not break with President Johnson on Vietnam or publicly disagree with him even after leaving office. "In short," Bird writes, "the Establishment had a problem speaking truth to power." Robert S. McNamara was similarly accused of "misguided loyalty" for withholding his doubts about the winnability and morality of the Vietnam War even after he left the Department of Defense for the World Bank.
But passion over either the Clinton follies or Vietnam should not blind us to the long-term value of loyalty. Loyalty is indispensable to an organized society and to orderly and effective governance. No American president can provide consistent direction in foreign affairs if he cannot depend upon those who accept his trust to also accept his leadership.
No president should need to spell out this obligation to his new appointees; he has every right and reason to assume it is part of their instinctive morality and institutional duty. Presidential aides expect and deserve it from one another to deter leaks, backbiting, and factionalism. The very concept of "public service" requires it from all who put their personal interests aside to serve. The framers of the Constitution, having rejected the notion of an executive council directing the president, assumed his subordinates would support him. "Everyone else in the executive branch," as President Truman once put it, "is an agent of the president."
But there is a difference between a loyal agent and a fanatical zealot -- or a servile puppet. All obligations of principle have practical conditions and limitations, and that includes the principle of loyalty to the president. As a new appointee, you have a duty to support, protect, and defend his interests, success, and agenda even on those occasions when they are inconsistent with your interests, success, and agenda. But that does not require you to "fall on your sword," go to prison, or endanger your life or that of others. You are not expected to forswear commitments to country and conscience, to family and faith. Your obligation to keep his secrets is not an obligation to tell lies, especially under oath. Your commitment to his every cause does not oblige you to conspire in any crime.
If loyalty does not require zealotry, neither does it require sycophancy. Neither the president nor the presidency is well served by a toady intimidated by the atmosphere of "fear and fawning" surrounding the Oval Office. An adviser must be more than an uncritical admirer. Eagerness to concur must not repress the qualities of mind and character that caused you to be appointed in the first place. Your duty is not to please the president but to help him -- bringing him your best judgment even when it is harsh, the whole truth even when it hurts, and all the choices even when they are hard.
Moreover, loyalty to the president, if it is to endure, must be reciprocal. A president under fire who blames his appointees for his failures or shames them in front of their peers is far more likely to find his aides undercutting him with unattributed comments to reporters and his former appointees distancing themselves from his troubles than a president who has consistently shown "loyalty down" by defending his aides in public, reassuring them in private, and protecting them against attacks from Congress or the press. "The relationship," wrote Dean Acheson, secretary of state to a president conspicuous for showing "loyalty down," must be one of "solid mutual respect based upon recognition by each that the other is wholly straightforward, loyal and living up to his full obligation."
That says it all. No president is required to tell any of his appointees everything, but he cannot long retain their trust if he tells them lies. No president is required to be right every time, but he has no right to risk the very principles that drew his subordinates to him. No president is required to accept any aide's advice on any particular issue, but he risks resignation or revolt if he rejects that advice without ample explanation of his reasons and careful consideration of that adviser's core values.
SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
One's core values will ultimately test whether one's loyalty to the president is more than kind words. The obligation to accept his final decisions is not limited to those about which you do not care or with which you do not disagree. Living with deep-seated disagreement and disappointment is an inevitable part of the job. In John F. Kennedy's first hundred days, those appointees appalled by his "green light" for the Bay of Pigs disaster were confident it would prove an aberration.
Despite checks and balances, the American system entrusts enormous decision-making authority to the presidency. That grant of power is justified and conditioned on one fundamental fact: its occupant is elected by all the people. Perhaps on some critical issue, an aide is certain that the president was wrong and the aide right. But, as the old question goes, who elected you? The president alone bears the final responsibility, and he receives information, advice, options, and political considerations of which you may be unaware. As Max Frankel once wrote of McNamara, however great his brilliance, he was "not a sun but only a reflecting planet."
Loyally accepting a presidential decision with which you profoundly disagree does not require a surrender of your rights or values. Within the limits of loyalty, you can continue to voice your doubts and dissents privately to the president, "speaking truth to power" as George Ball did on Vietnam. You can ask that you not be assigned to defend that which you consider indefensible -- a request that serves the president's own interest, for you may be unable to defend it credibly and effectively. Or you can swallow your disapproval, confide your disquietude only to your diary and distant memoirs (not in leaks to the press or in disgruntled administration cabals), and stay at your post, remaining ever hopeful that this too will pass, that on most important issues within your jurisdiction the president has earned your support, and that your continuing to prod within his circle will do more to move him in the right direction than any public protest you might make. Clark M. Clifford, by carrying on as secretary of defense even as his doubts grew about Vietnam, helped steer President Johnson toward a negotiated exit. That is not a coward's rationale. Staying often takes more courage than leaving.
If, however, the president's decision involves so overriding a principle that you can no longer in good conscience continue to believe in his leadership, much less implement that particular decision, then it is neither dishonorable nor disloyal to quietly submit your resignation -- not to continually threaten it, but to simply do it. Loyalty may induce you to postpone the effective date until after that particular crisis or the next election. It may induce you not to make public your discomfort for months, for years, or forever, depending on the urgency of the issue and the prospects of changing the president's course. But it cannot and should not compel you to stay when your heart is no longer in your job.
THE PRICE OF LOYALTY
That is not an easy decision. Resignations in public protest are relatively rare in America -- partly because the departing official is reluctant to hand a cudgel to the nation's or the president's foes and partly because he knows that such dramatics usually have little lasting effect. Some Johnson appointees quietly resigned over Vietnam. Cyrus Vance quietly resigned as Jimmy Carter's secretary of state over the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue operation. But resigning with "a blast at the boss" was rarely an option for national security officials during the Cold War -- even those who felt excluded, deceived, or bypassed by the White House -- because of the need to demonstrate national unity and policy continuity to our allies and adversaries.
Moreover, unlike their predecessors, most modern cabinet members simply do not possess the independent national following or political base necessary to make a resignation in protest a turning point for either the president or the public. Oval Office aides who move from the candidate's election staff to the "permanent campaign" in the White House are still less likely to speak out against their employer, even after they move on.
Over the years, some White House advisers have confused loyalty to the president with loyalty to party. A presidential aide contemplating public resignation should consider its possible effect, however small, on a first-term president's reelection. But an appointee affiliated with the opposition party, a different wing of the president's party, or no party at all is subject to the same standard of loyalty as his most rabidly partisan supporters in the campaign. (No member of John F. Kennedy's cabinet was more loyal to the president than Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, a leading Republican contributor.)
Others confuse loyalty to the president with gratitude ("I owe him everything"). True, any president gives his appointees a unique opportunity for service that could enhance their later fame and fortune. But the same obligations of loyalty apply to those appointees whose prestige and professional standing predated the president's call and whose willingness to sacrifice the peace and perquisites of the private sector may well have made him the grateful one. Loyalty is not given in exchange for benefits received. The president appointing you is entitled to your loyalty as your leader, not your benefactor. That he has been generous, considerate, or cordial to you may be gratifying, but it is hardly determinative when principles are at stake.
Nevertheless, your moment of decision on the limits of loyalty -- to object or acquiesce, to resign or stay, to speak out or keep silent -- is likely to coincide with his moment of crisis; and abandoning a president of the United States in crisis is not a step one takes lightly. The president's troubles, even if self-inflicted, are the nation's troubles. It is a time not to jump ship but to help save it. A lawyer does not abandon a long-term client for ignoring his advice, withholding facts from him, or otherwise falling short of his standards. If you leave a president's side, you increase the weight of those who advised him differently than you, and you leave shorthanded those in the administration who share your convictions.
In appointing you, the president is promising that he will hear your advice, not that he will always heed it. He is promising you a post full of challenge, not a post free from disappointment. He is expecting not only your wisdom but also your loyalty. There is no way of knowing at what point, on what issue, that loyalty will be severely tested.
You may then be required to balance the principle of loyalty against some other principle you hold dear, the need to recognize the president's democratic authority against your individual convictions, his right to your support against your right to speak out, your prospects for helping to alter his course if you stay inside against your prospects for influencing that course if you move outside. You will receive conflicting advice from concerned friends, interested groups, and self-righteous columnists. If you cannot handle that pressure, better reconsider accepting the appointment.