A tweet: in less than 140 characters I accidentally encapsulated my time as
supreme allied commander at NATO. It was October 2011, and I was preparing to recommend to the North Atlantic Council ambassadors that we
conclude combat operations in Libya. For the previous 8 months we had
been pounding the Libyan regime daily using precision-guided munitions on
our UN-authorized mission to “protect the people of Libya” from the brutal
Qaddafi regime. After more than 24,000 strikes and 3,000 at-sea intercepts, it
was clear that the people of Libya were in control of their own destiny, and I
felt it was time for us to call a halt to Operation Unified Protector.
But I caused a diplomatic stir by sending out a tweet to the world explaining what I would recommend to the twenty-eight ambassadors later that day.
News organizations picked it up, and soon the story of the “first war whose
end was announced on Twitter” was making the rounds. When I went to
Brussels to brief the ambassadors, I faced some resistance—not because anyone wanted to continue combat operations, but because I had violated some
unwritten rule on diplomatic communications. The French ambassador, a
good friend, in particular seemed quite miffed about my faux pas.
Such is NATO, where no innovation goes unchallenged, even in good
cause. But the good news was that it was good news. The council accepted the
recommendation a few days later, and the most successful NATO operation
of my time in command came to a reasonably happy outcome. I continue to
tweet early and often.
At the beginning of my Navy career I never dreamed that I would end
up a four-star admiral in command of all NATO operations and would tweet
the end of a war. In fact, my plan was to graduate from Annapolis, serve
for the obligatory five years, and head off to law school. Yet I sailed on well
past the five-year limit and recently finished thirty-seven years in uniform. It
all seems an accidental outcome in so many ways, as is true for nearly everyone’s life, I suppose. Our plans never quite survive contact with the real world.

x P reface

My plan collided with reality this way. As my five-year commitment
ended in early 1981, I had applications in at Yale Law School (wait-listed)
and a number of other prestigious schools of law (accepted at several). I had
submitted my resignation to the Navy and was about to begin what I hoped
would be an interesting (and profitable) career as a corporate lawyer.
Then Mike Mullen called me. At the time, the future chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff was a lieutenant commander working in the Bureau of
Naval Personnel. He had been a company officer at Annapolis during my time
there and was an early mentor who helped me decide on the surface Navy (as
opposed to submarines, aviation, or the Marine Corps).
“Stavridis, what is this I hear about you getting out?” was his opening
line, delivered as usual without preamble or foreplay.
I explained why I wanted to go to law school, assured him that I had
loved the Navy but really wanted to try something else, and laid out what I
thought was a defendable argument for my exodus.
“You want law school. OK. Let me try and get the Navy to send you to a
law school. I’ll call you back.” Dial tone.
The next day he called and offered to have the Navy send me to the
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I pointed out that Fletcher was not a
law school but a school of international relations. His comment: “It has ‘law’
in the name. And it is hard to get orders to it. So you better take it now.”
I was assigned to an aircraft carrier at the time, operating out of semitropical north Florida, my home. I liked my job, although it was hard work
in the engineering department. Several other factors came to bear about the
same time. One was my real affection for the sea and perhaps the beginnings
of a belief that one day I could be a reasonably good officer and perhaps even
a sea captain. Another was more prosaic: the cost of law school. Navy lieutenants at the time were unlikely to sock away a lot of money, and I had not done
so. And the third, delightful factor was that I had recently become engaged to
my lovely future wife, Laura. A Navy junior herself, Laura, it seemed to me,
would be happier in the embrace of the Navy family. A Navy scholarship to
graduate school to study international relations would guarantee that, at least
for the three-year obligation period following. And Laura wanted to study
international relations as well, which had been her undergraduate major.
So I stayed in the Navy and studied at the Fletcher School, ultimately
graduating with a PhD. Laura went to Boston University to do her graduate
work, also in international relations.

P r e f ac e   x i

In many ways that was the pivotal moment in my career—that nexus in
time we all face when two roads permanently and irrevocably part and a decision is made. While I toyed again with getting out several more times in my
career, essentially the die was cast at that moment. The decision to stay in the
Navy was obviously key, but the decisions (both mine and the Navy personnel
system’s) that led to my assignment in 2009 as the supreme allied commander
at NATO (SACEUR) began with my time in graduate school studying international relations.
It was at the Fletcher School that I first learned to appreciate the key interplay of politics, economics, finance, business, culture, language, and security.
The knowledge and skills I developed there helped me many times throughout the long voyage of my career, and came most pointedly into play in my
first four-star assignment—to U.S. Southern Command—and then at NATO.
That time in graduate school also began my thinking about an important
idea—one that I have written this book to share.
The big lesson that I learned along the way, and which is the underpinning of this book, is in one sense very basic: the world is a diverse and
complex place, and single-point “silver bullet” solutions for its problems will
almost always fail. Unilateral action is usually a disappointment; alliances,
partnerships, and friendships are everything. We must apply international,
interagency, and public-private connections in creating security in the twentyfirst century.
And it all must be done in a transparent and open way that leverages
our ultimate strengths—the Enlightenment values that undergird all that
our nation and the other democracies of the world stand for: liberty, freedom
of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of education, democracy itself, and
on, and on. Ideas must be spread through effective strategic communication
using the social networks where the world lives today.
I hope to illuminate not so much “what happened” during the turbulent
four years I spent at NATO from 2009 to 2013. The facts of those years are
already well documented and readily available from many sources. The issues
were large: Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, cybercrime, cyberterrorism, piracy, missile defense, defense funding cuts, unbalanced spending
within the NATO alliance, and many other things both good and ill.
Instead, I want to offer more about “why it happened” and what I learned
from it. Perhaps most important from my own personal perspective, I hope to
give a glimpse of what it is like to serve as NATO’s supreme allied commander:

xii P reface

the successes and failures, the good decisions and mistakes, the high and low
points of the voyage. It is a job I never expected—a Navy admiral chosen for
what has always been a general’s task. Although I was something of an accidental choice (as you will see in these pages), the voyage was a fascinating one,
and from it we may together learn a bit about how to create security in this
unsettled and dangerous century.
Finally, I have long believed that we must all dare to read, think, write,
and publish. No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together—no one
person, no one nation, no one alliance, no one organization. Our combined
knowledge is vastly greater than our individual inputs. So ideas must be
shared, and strategic communication—our self-talk—matters deeply.
Throughout my career I have written extensively, not so much to teach
others as to help myself learn. At the start of my time as SACEUR I began
to keep a journal about my thoughts and experiences in the job. It was only
the second time in my career that I had done so (the first being during my
first command at sea of a Navy destroyer). By the time I stepped down in
May 2013, I had assembled about 250,000 words covering my thoughts during
those four tumultuous years. I draw on those contemporaneous insights and
feelings often in the course of this book. In many cases, the quotes I include
were directly recorded in my journal. In other instances, they are re-created
to the best of my recollection.
What I hope to show in this volume is that in our complex world, the
best approach is an honest recognition that things will fail, mistakes will be
made, and the costs will be high. But we can succeed in creating security for
our nations by working together with allies, partners, and friends; by creating
true interagency cooperation in our own executive branch; and by partnering
with the private sector, in which the real power of this nation resides.
I would offer a final word about the people in the U.S. Department of
Defense and the free militaries of the NATO alliance, virtually all volunteers in the cause of freedom. More than two thousand years ago, the nascent
Greek democracy faced an existential threat from the empire of Persia. The
Persians came with a mighty fleet of triremes to conquer Greece, and they
outnumbered the Greek fleet by more than five to one. Yet the Greek fleet’s
Athenian admiral, Themistocles, knew that he had one crucial advantage: his
rowers were all free men, while the Persian fleet was manned overwhelmingly
by slaves.

P r e f ac e   x i i i

The night before the battle in the Bay of Salamis outside Athens, Themistocles gathered the captains of all his trireme galleys. He told them to
tell their men four things the next day at dawn before they rowed into battle:
“Tomorrow, you must row for your parents. Tomorrow, you must row for your
children. Tomorrow, you must row for your city. And tomorrow, you must
row for freedom.” The Greeks destroyed the Persian fleet, and the values of
democracy, freedom, and liberty were saved, eventually to be passed on to us.
The NATO alliance and the good men and women who serve it today
continue to row for freedom. I am proud to have spent four years with them
at the oars. This book is the story of that voyage.


First and foremost, I must say thank you to the hundreds of thousands of
NATO troops representing the twenty-eight nations of the world’s strongest
alliance who served under my command during my four years as the supreme
allied commander for operations. Their courage, honor, and commitment to
all of the missions we undertook left me deeply grateful that they were willing
to stand and deliver operationally in Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria,
counterpiracy, air policing, cyberdefense, and many other demanding tasks.
Too many died in Afghanistan; for the rest of my life I will honor their sacrifice in my memory and hold their families in my heart.
This book would never have been completed without the steadfast and
wise advice, counsel, and editorial support of Capt. Bill Harlow, USN (Ret.).
A truly professional Navy public affairs officer for decades, he also served
brilliantly in that role at the CIA. He has been the finest of friends and shipmates throughout the voyage of The Accidental Admiral, and I owe him a debt
of deep gratitude for more than two decades of friendship, as well as a free
lunch for life.
Throughout my time at NATO in Belgium and U.S. European Command
in Stuttgart, Germany, I was surrounded by talented men and women from
the United States and many other countries. In particular, I was blessed with
friendship and advice from my various deputies, senior enlisted advisors, State
Department political advisors, and executive assistants. Among many others,
several stand out: General Sir John McColl and General Sir Richard Shirreff
of the British Army were my NATO deputies. At U.S. European Command I
was blessed to have Lt. Gen. Jack Gardner and Vice Adm. Charlie Martoglio.
My senior enlisted advisors were Command Sgt. Major Mike Balch, Command Master Chief Roy Maddocks, and Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Small. My
executive assistants were Rear Adm. Jamie Foggo, Maj. Gen. Greg Lengyel,
and Brig. Gen. Roger Cloutier. The State Department sent me a superb pair of


xvi Acknowled g men t s

political advisors, both of whom became civilian deputies at U.S. European
Command: Ambassador Larry Butler and Ambassador Kate Canavan. All
were outstanding and remain close friends today.
On the NATO side, I was able to work closely with two brilliant secretaries general: Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands and Anders Fogh
Rasmussen of Denmark. Two chairmen of the Military Committee of NATO
were likewise outstanding in their energy and determination to see NATO
succeed: Admiral Giampaolo di Paola of Italy (who went on to be an exceptionally competent minister of defense) and General Knud Bartels of Denmark. I owe a great deal to this group of four friends, who provided generous
support as we rowed together in the galley of NATO.
My bosses back in Washington supported me well throughout the four
years: Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel are
outstanding public servants for whom I was lucky to serve. The two chairmen
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. Marty Dempsey,
were likewise exceptional.
Luckily, I have a wide circle of personal friends from within both the
military and the larger civilian world. So many people have helped me in the
four years of NATO that I cannot name them individually, but to each I owe
a great deal.
I am blessed with the fleet’s best mom, Shirley Stavridis—she spent
decades as a Marine Corps wife as she and my father, a USMC colonel, shaped
my life and launched me into my career. Likewise I have wonderful in-laws,
Capt. Bob Hall, USN (Ret.), and his wife, Joan.
Finally and most important, I will never be able to fully express how
much I owe to my lovely wife, Laura; nor how much I love her. We have sailed
together for well over three decades and the horizon is as bright as ever. She
also is the perfect mother of our two daughters, Christina and Julia, who make
me proud every day. They are the center of my life and the stars I steer by.


yoU WANt to seNd
me Where?
If you do not change direction,
you may end up where you are heading.
—Lao Tzu


ften in my dreams I am at sea on a ship again. I’m either the captain—
a middle-aged man in my late thirties, in command, feeling serious
but pleased with my seemingly heavy responsibilities—or, on increasingly infrequent occasions, a happy young junior officer in my early twenties
standing watch and giving rudder orders to the helmsman. Then it gets hard.
We are always approaching the shore after a long voyage. There is a pier, which
looks safe and simple to approach; but at the last minute, some unseen higher
commander orders us to proceed up a river, always the worst place for a warship.
At first it goes well; there is plenty of water and sunlight, and the channel is
well marked. But after a time, the banks of the river close in and heavy foliage
on both shores prevents me from seeing what dangers may threaten my ship.
All very Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness. The worst part is that the river
grows increasingly shallow. Soon we are simply skimming along on a plane of
mud, and I cannot imagine how the ship stays upright; it should tip over. But
somehow we are cruising along, and I am adding power to the engines to keep
us precariously thrusting forward, awaiting the ship’s inevitable fall to one side
or the other.
Then I awake.


2   Chapter 1

I walked out of the office of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in February 2008 feeling slightly disoriented. He had just asked me to become the
first Navy admiral to serve as the supreme allied commander of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The position, known by the acronym
SACEUR, was first held by Dwight Eisenhower. Since Ike, an unbroken line
of fifteen generals had done the job. For a guy who never expected to make
it beyond lieutenant, it was an awesome prospect—in the literal meaning
of the word. And it came with a second four-star assignment—the term in
the military is “dual-hatted”—as commander of U.S. European Command
(EUCOM). I would have two headquarters, more than three hundred miles
apart; two distinct staffs; and a world of challenges. I was flattered and honored—but I asked for some time to think about it before I said yes.
After thirty-two years of commissioned service following my graduation
from Annapolis in 1976, I was still relatively young at fifty-three and excited
about my career. I was certainly hopeful of another assignment, but before
my visit with Bob Gates that morning I would have guessed that I was about
to be offered the job of commander at U.S. Pacific Command, traditionally a
Navy post.
Yet the offer to go to Europe was not a complete surprise: I was close
to finishing my three-year tour as the combatant commander of U.S. Southern Command, responsible for all Department of Defense activity south of
the United States. I was the first Navy officer to land that job as well. My
area of focus comprised 45 countries and territories, 16 million square miles,
and well over 500 million people. I loved the job and had spent much of my
time—nearly 70 percent—traveling throughout the Americas. My Spanish
had improved to the point that I conducted all my meetings with my interlocutors from down south in Spanish, and I was studying Portuguese. From my
headquarters in Miami I led a team of tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors,
airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and defense civilians engaged in security cooperation and operations.
But all good things end, and it was clear that I would either take on a
new assignment or be asked to retire after nearly thirty-three years of commissioned service. I was comfortable either way. My nomination for the job
in Europe made some sense. I spoke reasonable French and Spanish, and my
PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University (the

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   3

nation’s oldest school of international relations) had a strong concentration in
European studies—history, politics, NATO, and security studies. Laura had
lived in Europe for six years as a child and spoke French, and I had lived
for three years in Greece as a child myself. I had operated extensively under
NATO command at sea in the Mediterranean over the years, and during my
time as senior military assistant to the secretary of defense we had gone to
many, many conferences and meetings engaging the NATO allies.
I considered myself reasonably well qualified to help manage the three
great issues facing NATO: Afghanistan, where almost 100,000 NATO troops
were in combat against the Taliban; Russia, a difficult and contentious relationship with a huge downside if we could not get it right; and the geostrategic future of the alliance itself. Kosovo and the Balkans were also concerns,
although things seemed to be going, as I would come to say later, “suspiciously
well” there. Not a single admiral, however, had ever been assigned to the twin
positions of SACEUR and EUCOM—command of NATO’s forces and all of
the U.S. forces in a geographic area that includes Europe, Russia, Israel, and
a major segment of the Atlantic. It was daunting to consider following in the
footsteps of Dwight Eisenhower, Alexander Haig, John Shalikashvili, Wesley
Clark, Joseph Ralston, James Jones, and all the others.
I was glad that I would continue to work for Bob Gates if I took the job.
Gates was a career CIA officer, Russia expert, and PhD with Russian-language
skills, and above all a “steady hand” amid the controversy and challenges of
Washington, D.C. I was happy to continue on Adm. Mike Mullen’s team as
well. He is a lifelong mentor and a superb chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Another plus was the chance to work with Gen. James Jones, who had
just been selected to be national security advisor to newly elected President
Barack Obama. General Jones had been both the Commandant of the Marine
Corps and the supreme allied commander in Europe. A bilingual French
speaker who grew up in Switzerland, he had been a fine example and occasional mentor to me for more than a decade, and I knew I could count on him
for solid advice and counsel in my new job. At least I can practice my French
with him, I thought. But above all else, in my heart I was not quite ready to
hang up my uniform.
Laura, my beautiful blonde wife of twenty-eight years, and I sat in Central, a relatively new restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, and talked about
the pluses and minuses of the assignment to NATO. We’d chosen a French
bistro–style spot to discuss the job. I knew Laura’s sharp judgment and deep

4   Chapter 1

knowledge of Europe would be invaluable assets in the tour—she had even
attended three years of high school in Belgium while her father, a Navy captain, was assigned to the NATO mission in Brussels. We agreed that the only
real downside about going to SACEUR would be leaving south Florida and
accepting the geographical separation from our two daughters and our aging
but fortunately still vigorous parents.
And Laura and I loved Miami—a gorgeous city, one of the most beautiful
in the country with its sweeping harbor, sunny beaches, lovely art deco buildings, and bustling Latino culture. More than half of the metro area’s residents
were born in other countries, and well over 60 percent of conversations are
conducted in Spanish. Miami is truly sui generis. I also had in hand a reasonable prospect of a fantastic job working for Donna Shalala, the president
of the University of Miami, a person I deeply admire and respect. But despite
our love for Miami and the chance of a good job in academia, we both quickly
came to the conclusion that I could not say no to the opportunity I had just
been offered to serve in Europe.
We returned to Miami and started preparing for a midsummer move.
Like all military families, we had moved many, many times before. Both
Laura and I grew up in the military, I in a Marine Corps family—my father
was a decorated infantry officer—and Laura the daughter of a naval aviator. Even before we married in 1981, our combined moves exceeded twenty,
including between us three tours in Europe. Since our marriage we’d pulled
up stakes and moved thirteen times, often going coast-to-coast in the typical
roller-coaster of a military career.
Yet, surprisingly, this was the first time in my career that I would be
based overseas. Although my ships had made numerous deployments, Laura
and our two daughters had always been homeported in the United States.
This new assignment came at a complicated time for our high school senior,
Julia. Like most young people about to leave the nest and head to college,
Julia had been hoping to be reasonably close to us, especially for the first year
or two. At one point, when it had looked like a job in Hawaii was an option,
she had applied and been accepted at the University of Hawaii. But with the
posting to Belgium, there was no U.S. collegiate option for her any closer than
the U.S. East Coast, a long six-hour flight away. We spent much of the weekend discussing the options and trying to focus Julia on the huge upside of
the assignment for her—trips to Europe, a built-in summer experience, the
chance to learn French—and she gradually squared her shoulders and settled

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   5

into the idea. A disciplined figure skater and a fine student, Julia would be a
success wherever she went to college, and as a Navy junior she had learned to
roll with the punches.
The move was a similar surprise to Julia’s older sister, Christina, who had
recently graduated from the University of Virginia and was working at Google in San Francisco. Like her sister, Christina had hoped her mom and dad
would be posted to Hawaii, which would have put us close to her on the U.S.
West Coast. She had turned down a job with Google in Dublin, Ireland, earlier in the year, betting on our coming west. But like Julia, Christina has great
reserves of character and flexibility, and after a couple of long phone calls with
Laura, she too was focusing clearly on the new home port—Mons, Belgium.
While the secretary of defense proposes people for jobs like the one I
had been asked to consider, the position is not the secretary’s to award. The
president must nominate officers for such jobs; the Senate must confirm
those appointments; and in the case of senior NATO assignments, the North
Atlantic Council’s twenty-eight ambassadors must also approve. So once I
had decided in principle that I would take the job, I had to go through several
more steps before it was all nailed down.
On a cold Wednesday afternoon in Washington, I was summoned to the
White House to meet President Obama.
I had read Dreams from My Father some months before (it was the first
book I downloaded to my Kindle) and found it reassuring to know that our
new president was a fine writer—the book has real literary quality—as well as
clearly being highly intelligent, adaptable, internationally oriented, and manifestly curious. Good qualities indeed in a leader. And I resonated to his “no
drama” style, which was part of my bedrock approach to leadership.
Over the years I had met five presidents—Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and
both Bushes—so this was not the first time I would be shaking hands with the
“leader of the Free World.” But the circumstances—a chat about my next job,
an important one in the context of the Department of Defense—were different. So my nerves were running high as I went through the normal routine
of a day in Washington—a speech, several calls on key congressional leaders,
and a quick lunch in my small Pentagon office. The appointed time was 3
p.m., and I had told my security team to get me there plenty early.
I walked into the West Wing of the White House, took a deep breath,
and was escorted by a staffer to the Oval Office. I was told to take a seat
just inside the door and wait for someone to come and get me. I had arrived

6   Chapter 1

about twenty minutes early and was hoping to connect with Secretary Gates,
who would be accompanying me to the session, for a moment or two before
meeting the president. I opened my Kindle and pretended to read. In fact, I
was working through possible answers to questions I thought the president
might ask.
What did I think was the right way ahead in Afghanistan? I decided I
would truthfully say that I wanted to see the results of the major reviews that
were under way (Joint Staff, National Security Staff, and U.S. Central Command all had such efforts in progress) before committing. But I felt it was
safe to say that I saw the needs in terms of three main areas: international
cooperation (particularly NATO, but also Russia, Pakistan, and even Iran);
interagency (getting all involved agencies of the government coordinated:
from the Agency for International Development [AID] to the Departments of
State, Defense, and Justice, to the Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA],
etc.); and local (without competent Afghan security forces we would never get
out of the country).
I also ran the tape of my thoughts on Russia. I’d always felt that there was
little substantive that outsiders could do to influence the Russians’ behavior.
They sort of rolled the cosmic dice: one time they’d get Peter the Great; the
next roll of the dice would bring Ivan the Terrible. Roll again and get Stalin;
and the next time Gorbachev. I looked at Putin as an unfortunate roll of the
dice (at least from a Western perspective), and he was clearly taking the Russians in an anti-U.S., anti-Western direction, influenced by his own career in
the KGB and by Russians’ inherent suspicion of the West. My thought was
that we actually needed to enlarge the relationship and convert it to a more
global level—to move beyond such essentially tactical issues as the missile
defense installations in Eastern Europe and engage Russia on the Pacific, proliferation, global warming, energy security, and other more universal topics.
I was also concerned about the expansion of the NATO alliance, which
I did not count at that moment as necessarily serving U.S. interests. When a
nation joins NATO, the other members agree to come to that nation’s defense;
an attack on one is considered an attack on all. But both Ukraine and Georgia, which wanted NATO membership, would be a hard sell to the U.S. public in terms of defending them; and the Russians considered both to be part
of a “greater Russia” in ways that Poland, the Czech Republic, and even the
Baltic states were not. Over time, I would come to be strongly supportive of
Georgia’s membership, and less so of Ukraine’s. But that was ahead. At the

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   7

moment, I was simply cautious on both counts and planned to make that
point with the president.
Suddenly, Adm. Michael Mullen, who also would be attending my job
interview, popped his head into the anteroom and motioned to me to follow
him into the Oval Office. I’d been there before for several briefings in the
Bush era as a backbencher, but this was my first time as the center of attention. President Obama rose from his chair and walked over, loose-limbed and
very relaxed. His smile was very welcoming, and he put out a hand and said
simply, “Admiral, congratulations. I hear some wonderful things about you
from all these folks [waving his other hand at Secretary Gates and Admiral
Mullen]. I know you’re going to do a fine job for us in Europe.” Well, so much
for the job interview. It was clear he had decided to nominate me for the job.
I was struck by the president’s height, but that was not unusual; virtually everyone towers over my compact five-foot, five-inch frame. We chatted
about several issues having to do with Europe, including Afghanistan and
Russia, and he concluded by saying how thankful he was for the work I was
doing “down south” in Miami and how much he looked forward to working
with me in my new post. I thanked him, and after fifteen minutes of friendly
conversation I excused myself.
On the way out, I stopped to chat for a moment with Gen. Jim Jones, the
president’s national security advisor. He congratulated me, and I promised
to call him right away to get his views of the job. In my view, no one had
been a better SACEUR than Jones since General Eisenhower inaugurated the
I walked out to my car, half-smiling to myself. It was an extraordinary
moment in my life, and I had a good feeling about both the job and my new

Some weeks before, back when I didn’t know whether there were any more
jobs for me in uniform—or whether I would accept one if it were offered—I
had started to think about a second career. One opportunity that came on my
radar screen was truly enticing: dean of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and
Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. I had been very interested
in the position. The job looked ideal: it was in a city I loved, on a beautiful
campus on Virginia Key, with a chance to work for Donna Shalala and lots
of potential to move the school ahead nationally. It was with reluctance that

8   Chapter 1

I withdrew from consideration for the job in order to take one more assignment in uniform. Oh, well, I thought, the chance of a lifetime only comes
around once a month or so, as the saying goes; there will be another time.
And so closed a very tempting chapter in my life. Ojalá (a Spanish term
meaning “God willing” that comes from the Arabic inshallah) something
equally attractive will come along in a few years, I prayed.
One night at about that time I had another dream that comes to me every
month or so. I am back again on my beloved first command at sea, USS Barry,
a brand-new Arleigh Burke–class Aegis guided missile destroyer. Despite all
my efforts, the ship runs aground (I hasten to say this never happened during
the twenty-eight months I was actually in command in the mid-1990s). There
are variations on what happens in the dream from this point, but generally
we are able to float free with little damage and a huge sense of relief and then
make our way out through a suddenly open channel to the deep ocean.
My dream that night had an entirely different ending: suddenly, I was no
longer the captain but was in fact a four-star admiral embarked on the ship.
I realized that I would have to do a better job in training the young captain
standing next to me, and I realized I had not done a good job thus far. When
I awoke and thought about the dream, it occurred to me that I was finally
letting go of those early years in command as I potentially headed off to my
second four-star tour. I suppose most people would have said it was about
time. But it made me sad that even in my dreams I could no longer be the
young Navy commander. The world moves on, even in our dreams.

While in Miami in early March, I got a call from the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, telling me that he would like me to take over my
new jobs by June, essentially a month earlier than I had expected. There
were a number of things I needed to wrap up quickly in Miami to make
that happen. One of the most enjoyable was attending an event celebrating
the release of three Americans who had been held hostage in Colombia for
many years.
Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes were Northrop
Grumman contractors working hard for U.S. Southern Command in Colombia in February 2003. They flew around the country as pilots, spotters, and
communicators in the effort to find illegal fields of coca, a main source of
revenue for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, a

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   9

narco-terrorist group whose activities included murder, bombing, extortion,
drug trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom.
The men’s single-engine airplane crash-landed in a small jungle clearing
after the engine failed, and they ended up in the hands of FARC. The pilot,
American Thomas Janis, and the Colombian passenger, Sergeant Luis Alcides
Cruz, were executed by FARC near the site of the crash. Marc, Keith, and Tom
were led away into what would become more than five years of captivity in the
most primitive and cruel circumstances imaginable.
Always kept together in a group, the three men were also held at times
with Colombian hostages, including “high-value” political prisoners. Our
three shipmates were in the “high-value” category as well, which meant the
prospects for their release were very dim. Their guards had orders to murder
Marc, Keith, and Tom at the first sign of a hostage rescue attempt.
Over the course of the next five and a half years, the resources of the
governments of both Colombia and the United States were focused on finding
them. They were the top priority of U.S. Southern Command, and over the
course of five years we expended more than $250 million in 17,000 flight hours
on 3,600 air sorties and undertook many operations in the jungle to try and
recover them. Our highest priority, of course, was their safety, and so all of
our operations were undertaken with a full appreciation of the risks involved.
Fortunately, Northrop Grumman kept faith with its employees and their
families, continuing to pay the men’s salaries and working with the U.S. government to keep the families apprised of what little was known about the
men’s whereabouts. It was a hard time for everyone, but especially for the
families, who behaved with courage and dignity.
In July 2008 the Colombian military undertook a brilliant and daring
rescue. They were able to trick FARC into peacefully turning over Marc,
Keith, and Tom and a number of high-value Colombian political hostages
to a group of Colombian military personnel pretending to be members of an
international organization. This daring operation resulted in freedom after
five and a half years for our colleagues and the Colombian political prisoners.
Marc, Keith, and Tom were flown immediately to our Army component
command in San Antonio, Texas, and given medical treatment and allowed to
reacclimatize to life in the United States and reunite with their families. After
a few weeks at Fort Sam Houston, they returned to civilian life and freedom.
We let Marc, Keith, and Tom know when they were rescued that we would
love to host a party for them at Southern Command headquarters to celebrate

1 0   Chapter 1

their release. The actual event was a joyous occasion. We awarded them the
Defense of Freedom Medal, given to civilians in recognition of their sacrifices
in the line of duty—equivalent to the Purple Heart for an active-duty military
person. The three gave a very revealing presentation about their experiences
to a packed house, then walked through the crowd of happy members of my
team, signing autographs and sipping beer. When I thought of all they went
through, and how dangerous and precarious their rescue had been, I knew
that in some ways I was looking at a miracle and a very good day indeed for
U.S. Southern Command.

By mid-March, Secretary Gates had publicly announced his intent to recommend me to the president for nomination as SACEUR/EUCOM. He made
the announcement at a press conference on March 18, just after a Reuters
story broke the news. Although I had known about my future assignment
for more than a month, I was finally in a position to talk about it publicly.
Following the Pentagon’s press release there was a flurry of news stories (typical theme: “A Thoroughly Modern Admiral—he blogs and writes books”),
hundreds of nice notes from friends and classmates around the world, lots of
handshakes and hugs in Miami, and then the realization that a lot of work
lay ahead.
The process that would unfold over the next several months would
include the president’s formal nomination to the Senate, approval by the
twenty-eight nations of NATO for the SACEUR side of the job, and a confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee. This would be
followed by the change of command in Miami; a few weeks of leave that I
would partially spend brushing up on my French; and finally a dual change
of command in Mons, Belgium, for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers
Europe and in Stuttgart, Germany, for U.S. European Command.
In early May I had an interesting week of meetings in Washington as I
prepared for my confirmation hearing. I met mostly with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who have jurisdiction over military appointments. Some of the week’s highlights included exchanges with the following:
Carl Levin. The chairman is a smart, fast-thinking lawyer who focused
on three key issues: missile defense in Europe (he favored finding a way
to cooperate with the Russians and avoid the political and financial

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   1 1

costs of a confrontation with them), taking a better-balanced civilmilitary approach in Afghanistan and getting more from our allies in
NATO, and working on a new strategic construct for the alliance.
John McCain. I had a very quick visit with the committee’s ranking
member, who was in a good mood because his son Jack was graduating from Annapolis later that week. He said he anticipated challenges
getting more contributions from the allies, and he seemed supportive
of my nomination. Senator McCain was kind enough to sign a couple
of his books that I brought with me. Everyone in the Navy—everyone
in uniform—considers him a hero for what he suffered and overcame
in prison in Vietnam.
Joe Lieberman. One of the real centrists in the Senate, he gave me an
extremely well informed rundown on Israel and the need for a strongly
supportive approach from the United States. I’ve always had enormous
respect for Senator Lieberman for his balance and pragmatism.
Bill Nelson. A native-born and long-term resident of Florida, Nelson is
one of my two home state senators, and we had become good friends
during my time in Miami. We had traveled together to Brazil and to
Haiti, and I knew he would be very involved with NATO as a member
of the Intelligence, Foreign Relations, and Defense committees.
Mel Martinez. I had come to depend on the judgment of the junior
Florida senator, especially in thinking through the issues of Cuba. He
is a smart, business-oriented Cuban American with whom I had frequently talked about Southern Command issues. We talked a bit about
his decision to leave the Senate, and he opined that our current governor, Charlie Crist (a fellow Greek American), would have a good chance
to follow him in the Senate. In the end, that did not happen.
John Thune. The charismatic young senator from South Dakota had a
good grasp on overall defense issues and a real interest in NATO and
Kay Hagan. The brand-new senator from North Carolina is a daughter of former Florida governor Lawton Chiles, famed for walking the
length of the state during a campaign. She had several sharp questions
about our approach in Afghanistan, which I described as international,

1 2   Chapter 1

interagency, and private-public—with a strong basis in strategic communication. She was thoughtful and engaged.
Jim Webb. In my view, he was one of the most fascinating persons then
in the Senate: a highly decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, former
secretary of the Navy, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and writer
of both nonfiction and several brilliant novels, a champion boxer at
Annapolis—a true renaissance figure. He always crackled with energy,
as though he had lightning in his veins. We talked mostly about books,
including two of his novels that I enjoyed, A Sense of Honor, about
Annapolis; and The Emperor’s General, about the controversial execution of a Japanese general after World War II.
Jack Reed. The West Point graduate from Rhode Island had become a
good friend during my time at Southern Command. His deep knowledge of the Army, granular understanding of combat operations in
both Iraq and Afghanistan, and willingness to debate the issues made
him a strong voice on the committee.
I also met with many academics and policy practitioners during that
week in May. None was more interesting than Ambassador Zal Khalilzad, a
U.S. citizen of Afghan descent who at the time was often mentioned as a possible candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan after Hamid Karzai. I heard
rumors that Zal was considering becoming a personal advisor to Karzai,
acting effectively as an unelected prime minister. Zal is extremely energetic,
intelligent, and deeply learned in the issues of Afghanistan and the entire
region. In addition, I met with Fred Kagan, Max Boot, Tony Cordesman, and
Michael O’Hanlon—four longtime observers of the war who were hardly in
agreement on how to proceed. I was continually struck, as I am today, by the
richness of the nation’s pool of policy advisors in Washington, Boston, and
New York. We are lucky to have a base of intellectual muscle like that, one
that is unafraid to disagree and contest the big issues.
My confirmation hearing on June 2 went well from my perspective and
was somewhat uneventful. I had spent the days leading up to it “boiling
down” all the key information in ten binders, each of them three inches thick
and full of tabbed information from both U.S. European Command and the
SACEUR staff. Each tabbed section had four or five single-spaced pages of
information on a variety of topics ranging from the funding necessary for

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   1 3

Department of Defense schools in Europe to the size and training of mentoring teams in Afghanistan.
Job one, it seemed to me, was to distill all of that into a few dozen pages.
I did that by laboriously reading each of the pages and pulling out what I
thought were the key elements. I then “cut and pasted” these into a relatively
short “gouge sheet”—the Navy’s name for a summary—ably assisted by Lizzie
Gonzales, my brilliant special assistant for legislative affairs. These brief notes
eventually grew to fifteen single-spaced pages with three or four topics per
page. I also generated some handwritten smaller cards as well as an opening
statement. Over the final two days I memorized the gouge sheet, the cards,
and the opening statement. This gave me the confidence to appear and speak
without notes, and to demonstrate at least a minimal opening command of
the material. It was also an excellent drill in terms of deciding what was really
crucial up front.
The next part of my preparation was the “murder board,” a role-playing
exercise in which knowledgeable former and current officials pretend to be
senators and hammer the nominee. Capitol Hill veteran Maj. Gen. Arnold
Punaro, USMCR (Ret.), former staff director of the Senate Armed Services
Committee under the legendary senator Sam Nunn, ably led my panel. He
was assisted by former deputy secretary of defense Rudy Deleon and a trio
of other Hill veterans: Rhett Dawson, Kim Wincup, and Michael Bayer. They
put me through my paces for two hours, covering much of the material I had
identified as important and put on the gouge sheet.
The day of the hearing I ate a good breakfast, loaded Laura, Christina,
and Julia into the car, and headed to the Hill early. Lots of good friends came
to the hearing to support me. We had tried to reserve seats, but demand for
them was high—not because of me, but because the committee was simultaneously considering another nomination, that of Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal.
A 1976 graduate of West Point—the same year I graduated from Annapolis—Stan was widely regarded as the top warfighting and counterinsurgency officer in the Army at the time. He had recently finished a four-year
assignment leading U.S. special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was
serving as the director of the Joint Staff—the top three-star position in the
armed forces—when he was nominated to replace Gen. Dave McKiernan in
Afghanistan as the four-star commander. Stan’s nomination was somewhat
controversial because of lingering concerns over the treatment of detainees
under his command; his role in the mistakes surrounding the Silver Star

1 4   Chapter 1

nomination of Pat Tillman; and the circumstance involving the sudden relief
of Dave McKiernan, his predecessor in Afghanistan. His appearance created
a mild media circus and generated a demand for seats in the hearing room.
I thought the hearing itself went extremely well. Stan got about 50 percent
of the questions; I got about 40 percent; and Lt. Gen. Doug “Skeet” Fraser, my
successor at Southern Command, got perhaps 10 percent; he was the happiest
of the three of us, I’m sure. The questions addressed to me were about Afghanistan, NATO and allied support both there and globally, Russia’s behavior in
Europe and the Caucasus, Latin America and Chinese activity there, and the
future of the NATO alliance. I felt reasonably well prepared (if nervous), and
at least had an answer for each of the questions. I didn’t need to resort at all
to “Senator, I’ll take that for the record,” a common dodge in testifying on the
Hill. I had been called on to testify many times in my three years at Southern
Command, and I felt this confirmation hearing was one of my better performances—perhaps because the personal stakes were quite high.
After it was over, I took my staff out and treated them to lunch at Brasserie
Beck, a Belgian bistro. Why not? It looked like Brussels was on the horizon!
After what felt like an interminable wait—but was only about a week—I
was unanimously confirmed on June 10 by the U.S. Senate to be the supreme
allied commander, Europe, and commander, U.S. European Command. I had
finished up thirty-two years of service, the last three as a combatant commander at U.S. Southern Command, and was excitedly looking forward to
the new challenges ahead.
We heard about the confirmation while I was in Atlantic Beach, Florida,
enjoying my vacation between the two jobs—all seventy-two hours of it.
I love Atlantic Beach. It is where my parents lived for more than thirty
years, where my daughters came for every Christmas—even when I was at
sea—and where my wife was born and her parents now live. It is as close to
a hometown as a military junior like me will ever have, and as a native and
proud Floridian (born in West Palm Beach), this has a nice resonance for me.
We play tennis, ride bikes, eat seafood, check on the parents, and enjoy the
easy, “beachy” life of the northeast coast of Florida.
We spent our last weekend in Miami crashing through moving preparations. Those who have never done a military move cannot appreciate the
pain involved. Everything you own must be sorted, disconnected, stacked,
organized, cleaned, and prepared for moving or storage. It is just exhausting.
Our degree of difficulty—and pain—was unusually high because our younger

Yo u Wan t to S e n d M e W h e r e ?   1 5

daughter, Julia, was also preparing to head off to the University of Texas at
Austin on an NROTC scholarship—and would be ten thousand miles away
from Mom, who would be in Belgium wishing she was closer to Julia.
The military is all about ceremony, and there was a big one in Miami
to mark my change of command. More than two thousand people showed
up, including Secretary of Defense Gates, brand-new secretary of the Navy
Ray Mabus, former secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, Mel Immergut
(the head of an old-line white-shoe law firm in New York City and one of the
canniest thinkers and best negotiators I have ever met), military leaders from
the nations to the south, and hundreds of friends in the community, including Mayor of Coral Gables Don Slesnik and Donna Shalala. We lucked into
beautiful Florida weather for the ceremony: a balmy early summer morning.
We held it under a covered tent in case of rain, and it was good that we did
because the skies opened just after we finished.
Leaving Southern Command made me sad in the same way that leaving
my destroyer Barry had done so many years before. SOUTHCOM is small,
like a good, tight ship with a “family feel.” The EUCOM/SACEUR combination of jobs would feel like running an aircraft carrier strike group in comparison. I suspected that the command I was leaving would be the last in
which I would have a truly personal feel for so many of the people.
A few days later I loaded Laura, Julia, too much luggage, and a drugged
basset hound named Lilly into an airplane, and off we went across the Atlantic to Belgium—the Stavridis family’s version of the Griswalds in European
Vacation. I passed the flight working on priorities, inaugural presentations
and e-mails, my blog, and the stream of e-mails from well-wishers.
We all had our worries: Laura was nervous about being so far from our
two daughters and our aging parents. I was nervous about taking on such a
huge new responsibility. Lilly was wondering what had happened to her house
and why she now lived in a small box on an airplane.
As I was preparing to depart, Colin Powell, one of my heroes, e-mailed
some advice. The trick in SACEUR, he told me, was not to think you were
Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman emperor). I mentioned that bit of advice
to Gen. George Casey, the wry Army chief of staff, who laughed and said,
“Don’t worry Jim, you’re not tall enough to be Charlemagne.”
That about summed it up, I thought. Let the tour begin.


tWo JoBs, tWo coUNtries,
oNe hoUse
I find the great thing in this world is not so much
where we stand, as in what direction we are moving:
To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind
and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes


t is always exciting—and tough—to start a new job. But this was the first
time I had started two new jobs at once. Being commander of the U.S.
European Command (EUCOM) would be challenging enough, with
almost 100,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen
(and their 150,000 dependents) to look after. They were spread across fift yone nations from the Bay of Biscay north of Spain and west of France to the
distant Pacific coast of Russia, from the High North of Sweden and Norway
to the bustling eastern Mediterranean seacoast of Israel. That alone is quite
enough to keep anyone busy.
Compounding the problems of size and space was the fact that I lived five
hours away from my own headquarters—a tough commute. EUCOM headquarters, with a staff of several thousand, is located in Stuttgart, Germany—
more than 250 miles from my house in Mons, Belgium, just south of Brussels.
Why didn’t I live in Stuttgart? Because headquarters for my second job, as
supreme allied commander for operations at NATO (SACEUR)—which took
up vastly more of my time—is located in Mons. NATO headquarters, which is
also the center of gravity for the entire alliance, is just up the road in Brussels.