Michael Mullen

Wednesday, Nov 4, 2015

Admiral Mike Mullen

Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor, WWS

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


“I’m Confused: What is U.S. Strategy?”


October 8, 2015



Mike Mullen, a career navy officer, thought the Pentagon an intimidating place when he made one-star admiral, in the 1980s, and he sought guidance from his superiors, the senior leadership of the navy.  “What’s our future, what’s the plan, how was I going to fit in?” he recalled asking.  “Having a strategy became part of my DNA.”

In 2005, he himself became chief of U.S. naval operations – “to my surprise” – and was determined to provide strategic guidance to all those under him. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “called out of the blue” to ask him to become chairman of joint chiefs.  It was the time of the Iraq war surge, things were not going well, and most of his life had been spent taking care of sea operations.  Now, he had to contemplate U.S. strategy for the Middle East (“from Tehran to Beirut”), for Afghanistan, which also meant taking into account Pakistan, and for Russia, which he had studied up close as a result of his time in NATO.

Admiral Mullen, appointed chairman of the joint chiefs under President George W. Bush, a Republican, remained in that post under President Barack Obama, a Democrat.  Suddenly, his job evolved into developing greater strategic insight into Libya, Syria, Egypt, and a host of other places coming unglued.  “How do I fit into all this?  What was the strategy for all these places?”  Of course, he noted, the country’s top military officer does not issue U.S. strategy.  He provides advice to the president.

Admiral Mullen put together a small team that examined the ecology of the world today – water shortages, global migration, haves and have-nots, terror, anti-modernism, weapons of mass destruction, destroying oceans, climate.  Their core idea was to move from a strategy of containment, which had won the cold war, to one of sustainment, a world in which people can prosper, our own and the rest of the world, an interdependent world.  “We cannot do it alone, like we used to be able to.  What are the best levers, how do we move forward?”

The key to sustainment was prosperity and the key to that was education.  “The world can be a better place when economies thrive.  Parents want their kids to attain a higher standard of living, in a peaceful environment.  Good economic outcomes drive that, so from a security standpoint, we need to support thriving economies.”  He added: “No hope was the issue in Egypt, Libya.”

The sustainment brief has not yet been publicly unveiled.

In his undergraduate course at the Woodrow Wilson School, he stresses finding the right balance between U.S. military and diplomatic power, and keeping in mind what we value as a country.  “Freedom, democracy, equality [of opportunity], fairness.  We need to remember these, put them up and follow them.  We need to be careful about what we mean by democracy.  Yet we need to stick with it: what parts can we help support, in countries where young people have no hope.  We have elections and we think it’s going to be ok.”

“Part of the value discussion involves principles, such as accountability, respect or listening.  Part means that more often than not we are patient, that we try to build relationships on trust, that we include a discussion with the American people.  Yes, Congress should vote on whether we go to war or not.  Be aware of history.  It is alive all over the world, Americans tend to look forward, not know history.”

He would like to see America “lead with diplomacy.  There are nothing but hard choices out there, but we need courageous political leaders to make them.  The three leaders who are moving the world right now are the pope, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin.  Two of the three are not people I would have picked.  We need courageous leaders to lead.”

Admiral Mullen singled out as the two existential threats to the United States 1) Russia’s weapons of mass destruction – “we must make progress with Putin, a cornered, caged guy” – and 2) multiple countries’ cyber warfare capabilities, “which could change our way of life, shut down our financial system.  In a war game we shut down the port of L.A., and the country was at a standstill for two weeks.”

He offered reflections on how U.S.-Pakistan relations look from the Pakistan side, and on the dynamic of violence in Syria, by way of urging that the U.S. “needs to be engaged.”  The U.S. still possesses “the greatest economy, greatest education system, greatest opportunity in the world.  The world still depends on us greatly.”  He called for very active diplomacy, talking to leaders of countries we might not like, in order to develop political frameworks, whether for Syria or anywhere else.  “Get the ‘Star Wars bar’ of politicians together.”