The Rotary Club of Sammamish welcomed retired four-star General Barry R. McCaffrey as a guest speaker to discuss national security at its virtual meeting on Thursday.
A highly-decorated U.S. Army veteran of 32 years, McCaffrey is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a national security and terror analyst for NBC News, and president of his consulting firm McCaffrey Associates. He now lives in Seattle and is an honorary member of the Downtown Yakima Rotary Club.
Forty-one people attended the virtual meeting, including additional guests Rotary District 5030 Governor Catherine Gibson and former Sammamish mayor Don Gerend. Members had the opportunity to ask McCaffrey their own questions, which ranged from subjects like current international conflicts to the recently established United States Space Force.
The United States today is arguably more secure than ever before in its role as a country of economic power, notwithstanding impacts from the novel coronavirus pandemic, McCaffrey said.
Still, he acknowledged that the U.S. is facing unique challenges in 2020 that compound pre-existing issues that were decades in the making. It is important to recognize the still-lingering sentiment among Americans that the country is invulnerable to foreign intervention and threats however, he said.
“There’s no guarantees in life,” McCaffrey said. “And you know, I tell people, ‘Make sure you always embrace fear as part of your foreign policy and defense policy.”
McCaffrey served as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy after retiring from the Army in 1996, and later became a professor and taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point from 2001 to 2010.
McCaffrey noted a frequent disconnect in ideas and their execution between academic intellectuals and national defense practitioners, but said both were important to the national security dialogue.
Many significant shifts in global politics and the American identity took place throughout McCaffrey’s time in government and academia. The 9/11 terrorist attacks certainly challenged American assumptions that the country is untouchable, he said. The rise of the internet and digital communication also permanently changed the political landscape over his career, but McCaffrey holds firm to his belief that the future of military operations is not exclusively internet-based.
Nevertheless, McCaffrey said proof of Russian online interference, though it unlikely had significant impact on 2016 election results nor the upcoming 2020 presidential election, provide a principal threat to the United States.
McCaffrey claimed President Donald Trump appeared “under the sway of Mr. Putin” in a viral Tweet he wrote in 2018 — a comment that quickly rose to media attention and scrutiny from Trump’s supporters.
Echoing his 2018 message, McCaffrey expressed concerns to Rotary Club members that Trump poses a danger to democratic values and American rule of law.
“I think the country has started to have zero trust in the political class in this country,” he said. “Now we’re running into an even more complicated situation. I personally — this is, in my view, an objective, not a partisan viewpoint — I think Trump is the biggest threat to this country since World War II.”
One member asked McCaffrey about military education regarding the military’s obligation to follow orders from the president, especially if an order from the commander-in-chief may be illegal. McCaffrey demurred in his response.
Americans concerned about Trump’s presidency should rely more heavily on Congress, the federal court system, the media and voters, rather than turning to the armed forces, McCaffrey said, adding that America is now poised “on the edge of a constitutional crisis” in the midst of a divisive situation.
Despite challenging circumstances, McCaffrey remains confident in the U.S. and the role of organizations like Rotary International in keeping Americans together as the pandemic continues.
“I’m always an optimist about the American people, about our future,” McCaffrey said.