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Retired Admiral William McRaven on Why U.S. Leadership Matters

9 minute read

Retired Navy Adm. William McRaven’s nearly 40-year career in the U.S. military has spanned everything from deployments as a Navy SEAL, hunting down high-value targets overseas, commanding U.S Special Operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and advising Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But McRaven is best known for planning and overseeing the 2011 raid that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden. In December that year, McRaven was named as a runner-up for TIME's Person of the Year for his role in the operation. "There is nobody in the U.S. government that thinks we can kill our way to victory, certainly not the special-operations guys," he told TIME in 2011, "but what happens is, by capturing and killing some of these high-value targets, we buy space and time for the rest of the government to work."

After retiring from the U.S. military in 2014, McRaven served as the chancellor of the University of Texas System and has written several books on leadership. Now, he has been awarded $50 million to use for charity from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his fiancé Lauren Sánchez. He tells TIME he intends to use the Bezos Courage and Civility Award to support the children of fallen servicemembers and advocate for veteran mental health issues and education. His conversation with TIME has been edited for clarity and length.

You recently received the Bezos Courage and Civility Award, with $50 million to give to charities of your choice. How are you planning to use it?

Almost all of this is going to be focused on veterans and their families, and I'm working through how best to use this money and leverage [it] so that we can maximize the impact. I will definitely be focusing on the children of the fallen, the Gold Star children who've lost fathers and mothers in combat. I've been working with an organization for many years called the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Since 1980, in the Special Operations community we've lost over 1,300 that have been either killed in action or in training, and they've left behind about 1,700 children. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation takes care of educating those children. Then I'll see what other programs are available out there for the children of the fallen. And then the other area, of course, is mental health for servicemen. The Veterans Administration, they do great work helping veterans and their families on mental health issues. So this will be an area where I'm going to look and say, well, what don't the VA and the military healthcare system cover?

The U.S. military is seeing record-low recruitment numbers. Last year, the military services missed recruiting goals by about 41,000 recruits. How big of a concern is this?

What we found in talking to senior leaders is that some of this was exacerbated by COVID. Our pipeline for young men and women coming into the military is generally through the high schools, and because of COVID, the military recruiters didn't have an opportunity to get in. So you know, not having an opportunity to show the value of being in the military I think is having an impact on recruiting numbers. But I saw after 9/11 how these young men and women stepped up. They knew they were going off to war and they volunteered in droves. Anytime people are losing a little bit of hope in the United States, I say, spend some time with these young kids and you'll regain your hope because they're a great generation. So the military, of course, is working through this. And I think we'll come back and we'll find in a couple years that our recruiting numbers get back up to where we need them to be.

How are you thinking about the challenges, and the opportunities, of AI when it comes to national security?

The military has always been an organization that will adopt new technology on the battlefield in hopes of gaining some advantage over the enemy. As we begin to look at AI and machine learning, its ability to discriminate between good guys and bad guys is important. Nobody in the military wants to inadvertently kill civilians. So your ability to differentiate between who's good and who's bad, by using AI and machine learning, I think is going to help us be more surgical on the battlefield. But the other part about AI that is important to us is how rapidly can you make decisions. The key in the battlefield environment as the commander is [whether] you can make a decision faster than the enemy can. [AI] will help us diagnose problems quicker, it will help us resolve problems quicker. So the military will always look forward to new technology to figure out how it can make us better soldiers, sailors, Marines, and how it will improve our lethality without inadvertently killing civilians.

What about concerns that the U.S. may risk losing its technological edge to adversaries like China unless it moves more quickly?

We are still decades ahead of the Chinese in terms of our creativity, our entrepreneurial approach...our AI and machine learning is fundamentally better. So from that standpoint, we still have an edge on China. But that doesn't mean you don't need to turn your head around and see how quickly they're progressing. Whether it's China or other competitors out there we need to make sure we have a technological advantage. This is why it's important for the military to be working with Silicon Valley...and stay engaged.

Ahead of the 2024 election, a lot of America’s allies are anxious about the prospect of another Trump presidency that could withdraw the U.S. from the global stage. Do you think domestic politics is harmful to U.S. leadership abroad?

The fact of matter is, the world needs U.S. leadership. Even people that disagree with our politics understand that U.S. leadership is the most important leadership in the world, because who else is going to lead if we don't? Nobody of any consequence really wants Russia or China leading, certainly not our allies. So we need to continue to make sure that we...keep those alliances strong, whether it's in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, or building alliances in the Middle East. At the end of the day, it's a little bit like the old Churchill saying: "There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” And so whoever the next president is needs to continue to reinforce these alliances.

You were recently in Ukraine. What was the sense there about U.S. support at this critical point in the war?

I've traveled all throughout Ukraine, and I've had a chance to talk to a lot of their military leaders. And you can't help but be impressed by their resilience, by their determination, by their patriotism, and I think we need to continue to stand behind Ukraine. This is a fight that they are fighting not only for their own homeland, but frankly for the Western values that we hold pretty dear. They were certainly anxious about whether or not the U.S. would continue to supply arms and ammunition for their flank. And, obviously, their concerns were founded as Capitol Hill has been slow on moving towards support. So, again, my position has been we need to continue to support Ukraine. And I hope the folks on Capitol Hill move towards providing the resources they need.

Looking at the war in Gaza, what do you think of the criticism that the U.S. is not leveraging its leadership effectively?

I think Secretary Tony Blinken kind of understood early on that the U.S. needed to lead and this is an incredibly challenging situation. Obviously the attacks on Oct. 7 were about as vile and as heinous and as barbaric as any attacks we've seen in modern time. So you have to understand and appreciate the IDF's position, the Israelis' position, on striking back [and] striking Hamas. But at the same time, of course, there are a lot of innocent Palestinians that have gotten caught up in this war. And this is where we do need U.S. leadership to step up and to do what they can to help the innocent Palestinians. Having spent a lot of time in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, no soldier wants to inadvertently kill innocent civilians. You absolutely want to take out the terrorists, you want to do what you can to make sure that Hamas never has the opportunity to strike back again. But at the same time, you have to be cognizant of the civilian population, you have to do everything you can to make sure that you're not inadvertently killing civilians. And from what I've seen, the U.S. is making a strong case now to the Israelis that they need to take this very, very seriously.

We've covered a lot, but given your decades of experience in national security and the military, what is the thing that keeps you up at night now, in 2024?

When I was chancellor of the University of Texas System, I was often asked what I thought the number one national security problem was. And people always thought that I would answer something like North Korea or Iran. But my answer was always the same: K-12 education. Because if we're not educating the young men and women in this country to have the STEM skills that they're going to need, to be able to think critically, to understand other cultures, then 20 years from now, they're not going to be the national security leaders we need to be able to deal with complex issues that are out there. So as we continue to approach the elections in 2024, I'd like to see one of the candidates talk about the importance of education.

Speaking of leadership, your name comes up fairly regularly in election cycles. Would you ever run for office?

I have absolutely no plans to run for office. I’ve been married for 45 years, and if I want to make it to 46 I’m gonna have to stay here in Austin.

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com