Montana Viewpoint: False bravado places nation’s safety, leadership at risk

Jim Elliott

There was once a colorful character named Bat O’Callahan who lived near my hometown of Trout Creek, Montana. He and his wife Jessie worked on the Silver Creek Ranch in Riley, Oregon, in the 1950s.

Jessie was the ranch cook, and one day a fight broke out in the dining hall among the young buckaroos (which is what cowboys are called in that part of America) and weapons were drawn. Bat shouted “Guns in the hands of greenhorns!” and took cover.

We now have greenhorn political appointees who, with a false sense of confidence, think they are senior gunslingers and are carrying out foreign policy on their own, using rules they learned in the business world, and dismissing the concerns of career diplomats and government agencies.

This would be fun if American lives and America itself were not at stake. There is a reason for the protocol and careful choosing of words by career members of the Foreign Service; they need to be trusted and clearly understood by their counterparts in nations around the world.

Some Americans may not like this because it may not seem the “macho” thing to do. Like the greenhorn buckaroos, they think that America is strong enough to carry the day with the threats, deceptions, and bravado of inexperienced political appointees. That is a pipe dream fueled by the overconfidence of blissful ignorance.

There is a reason America has dominated the world in the 74 years since World War II and that is because we have diligently and strategically sought to gain allies against the threats to democracy that are manifested by the former Soviet Union, now Russia, and communist China. Yes, it is expensive. Yes, it involves compromise, but with that kind of “un-macho” leadership America became recognized as the trusted leader of the free world, and that world has been without total war for those 74 years.

I would be happier if everyone in government stood behind our government institutions and didn’t cowboy around on their own. When the entire intelligence community of the United States agrees that Russia, not Ukraine, worked to infiltrate the American electoral process you can take that to the bank.

To argue otherwise is naïve and dangerous and in itself constitutes a threat to America by demoralizing the professionals of the agencies involved. It sends the message that we do not trust our own intelligence agencies, emboldening the Russians, and exposes the American people and our allies to Russian aggression.

We have known over the course of the last 100 years that Russia and what was the Soviet Union are not trustworthy. America, like every other free world nation, has had to take that into account in dealings with Russia.

In the 102 years since the Russian revolution the leadership of that country has been notoriously ruthless, deceptive, and untrustworthy; Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and now the Russian leader, Putin. Any country whose leaders send those who disagree with them to prison or death is not a country whose leadership can be trusted.

Putin knows what he is doing in playing with America. He has been a spy, in fact, the head of the Russian spy system. He knows the ropes. He knows how to deceive and how to punish. He knows what he personally wants, and that is to be the most powerful man in the world. And he is way ahead of the American buckaroo political appointees who think they can fool him.

He is not, however, ahead of the professional intelligence network of the United States, and to dismiss their unanimous findings with a fantasy scenario is to expose America and the American people to physical danger.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at