We’ll keep this short. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman’s plan to retire from the U.S. Army was reported on Wednesday, 8 July. The news reports have all given prominence to the claim of Vindman’s lawyer that the White House was engaged in a campaign of “bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” against Vindman.
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has also been threatening to hold up the promotions of 1,100 officers if she isn’t convinced that the Trump White House has refrained from intervening improperly in the promotion process for LTC Vindman.
The CNN report, however, makes it pretty clear (if only inadvertently) what has actually happened. For one thing, down deep in the story, CNN cites a Defense Department official who said Vindman was in fact selected for promotion to colonel. So that’s not even an issue.
According to CNN, “The official also said that [Defense Secretary] Esper had already approved the list of promotions put forward by the Army, including Vindman’s promotion to colonel, and that list was still scheduled to go to the White House on Wednesday.”
So in spite of garbled allegations about the promotion process being messed with, it sounds like Vindman, who has been a commissioned officer for 21 years, was going to promote in fiscal year 2021, his 22nd anniversary in commissioned service. That’s about right for a Foreign Area Officer (FAO), an independent, specialty career path to which Vindman transferred from the infantry branch in 2008.
The problem for Vindman was not that he wouldn’t promote; it’s that he wouldn’t be deployable in his FAO role (specializing in Eurasia, chiefly Russia and Eastern Europe) because he went to Congress and testified as to his opinion that the president – his commander-in-chief and the chief of U.S. foreign policy – had made missteps in the execution of foreign policy.
The CNN passage puts it this way, which sounds like it’s pretty much exactly what the source said: “Vindman was told by senior Army officials that he would no longer be deployable in his area of expertise, which includes Ukraine.”
Of course Vindman was told that. The president owns both of the disciplines in which Vindman would deploy: foreign area expertise as a military officer, and the manning of U.S. diplomatic delegations – and the conduct of foreign policy – in general. Should the president see a reason to be selective, he gets to choose who will be on his country teams. If he doesn’t want someone on a team, he has every right to have that individual excluded.
It’s outside of anyone else’s lane to try to cram Vindman into a delegation, if the president doesn’t want him. I might not especially care for a given president, but that rule applies to every one of them. A president cannot be exercising undue influence by deciding he will not be represented abroad by certain individuals. Only others can be intervening improperly if they attempt to sabotage a president’s authority in that regard.
That’s why CNN got this soundbite from its sources: “[Vindman] was also told by senior officers he would need a ‘rehabilitative assignment’ even if he had opted to attend the National War College, an option he had been considering before Wednesday’s announcement.”
That means Vindman would need an assignment to mark time with; i.e., if he wanted to outlast Trump’s potential second term. The National War College is a one-year study program, which would be followed by a (typically) three-year permanent duty assignment such as a FAO job abroad or a job in the Pentagon or a major Army command in the U.S. What Vindman was being told was that he wouldn’t be assigned to a FAO job in his regional area after the War College, implicitly because President Trump wouldn’t want him in such a role. (Frankly, the State Department and the Army wouldn’t want him there either. Vindman is a hot potato now, for any job requiring diplomatic credibility, by his own choice to openly impugn the policies of the commander-in-chief.)
It’s the president’s call. The president, unlike LTC Vindman, Senator Duckworth, the other Democrats in Congress, or anyone else in the federal government, is elected by the entire nation to conduct America’s foreign policy. He gets to no longer trust Vindman. It’s his dime.
If Trump were reelected, and Vindman attended the War College and received his promotion – which no DOD source indicated was in jeopardy – Vindman could take a non-FAO assignment after the War College. CNN records a joke about Vindman having to settle for a “radar station in Alaska,” but that’s just a joke (and one of the most hackneyed ones in the military). The Army would find something suitable for a Colonel Vindman.
It wouldn’t be in the heady atmosphere of the NSC, however, or at an embassy or on a negotiating team. Those days are behind Vindman. There’s not a president who has ever served who would accept Vindman going back to Ukraine on his watch to represent him there, nor should there be. The mainstream media narrative on this is a straw man.
The military should be left, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, to promote officers according to its due-process standards. It was proper to give LTC Vindman a fair shot, and apparently he was selected for promotion with the next batch. Meanwhile, however, presidents don’t have the membership of America’s diplomatic delegations forced down their throats.
We may wish LTC Vindman well in his future endeavors.