Former Navy SEAL who oversaw bin Laden raid says people 'don't have to look at a president' to find American values

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David Choi,Ryan Pickrell
·4 min read
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Ret. Adm. William McRaven
Ret. US Navy Adm. William McRaven. Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images
  • Retired Adm. William McRaven had a hopeful message for aspiring public servants.

  • "When the locals see that, they believe in America," McRaven said of public service.

  • He said people "on the ground, meeting with them every day — that's who represents America."

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Retired Adm. William McRaven, a former US Navy SEAL commander who led US Special Operations Command, had a hopeful message for aspiring public servants, particularly those who feel distraught by an absence of moral leadership by high levels of government.

"The country has always had these times in history where people have questioned the moral leadership of a president or the country," McRaven said in the "General and the Ambassador" podcast. "But the fact of the matter is, we need great young men and women in the Foreign Service, in the Department of Defense, in the intelligence community, in law enforcement, in the Peace Corps, because our values are the things that are transmissible to other countries."

"We really do believe that people ought to be treated with respect," McRaven added. "And when you see that in the young [United States Agency for International Development] workers, and the young Foreign Service officers ... when the locals see that, they believe in America. They don't have to look at a president, they don't have to look at Congress, they don't have to look at a secretary of defense - they've got to look at the people that are on the ground, meeting with them every day. That's who represents America."

McRaven also argued that America's ideals were "fungible across the world" and that "anybody that thinks otherwise has never spent time overseas."

"It isn't all the people with all of the flash and flair," McRaven said. "It's the young men and women who espouse and live the American values - that's what makes a difference. I would encourage anybody graduating from high school or college find an opportunity to serve. You'll never, ever regret it."

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Emmitt Hawks/USNavy/Getty Images

McRaven's comments come as President Joe Biden prepares to usher in a new era of American foreign policy.

The Senate confirmed Antony Blinken as Biden's secretary of state on Tuesday. During his confirmation hearing to become America's top diplomat, Blinken presented a view of US foreign policy that differed greatly from the previous administration's.

Blinken assured lawmakers that he and others in the new administration would prioritize rebuilding global alliances and reengaging in international affairs. "American leadership still matters," he said.

"Working across government and with partners around the world, we will revitalize American diplomacy to take on the most pressing challenges of our time," Blinken said, adding, "America, at its best, still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good."

Biden's predecessor, President Donald Trump, campaigned with an "America First" slogan. Trump's critics scrutinized his rhetoric and foreign-policy measures, which they described as alienating and abandoning allies while emboldening adversaries, Russia in particular.

Mattis and McRaven SEAL Navy Marine Corps
Gen. Jim Mattis and McRaven at a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in March 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Among those critics was former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The retired Marine Corps general resigned from his post in 2018, writing in his resignation letter that Trump deserved a Pentagon chief "whose views are better aligned" with his.

"My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed over four decades of immersion in these issues," Mattis wrote. "We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by our alliances."

In November, Mattis published an op-ed article urging Biden to eliminate all of Trump's "America First" policies, replacing them with "the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades."

McRaven has also weighed in on Trump's worldview. In a past New York Times opinion column, titled "Our Republic Is Under Attack From the President," McRaven wrote that Trump's policies endangered the trust from America's allies.

"If our promises are meaningless, how will our allies ever trust us? If we can't have faith in our nation's principles, why would the men and women of this nation join the military," McRaven wrote. "And if they don't join, who will protect us? If we are not the champions of the good and the right, then who will follow us? And if no one follows us - where will the world end up?"

McRaven held numerous leadership positions within the special-operations community during his 37 years in the armed forces, including overseeing the successful military raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. After retiring from the Navy, he went into academia.

The retired admiral has written three books on service and leadership. They are "Make Your Bed: Little Things That can Change Your Life ... And Maybe The World," "Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations," and "The Hero Code: Lessons Learned From Lives Well Lived."

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