MICHIGAN CITY — Be it the opioid addiction epidemic that has so many citizens in its grip, or the machinations of the nation's competitors on the geopolitical chessboard, America faces many threats, both from within and outside its borders.
To combat these pressures, the nation needs a united people – something the current crop of leaders in Washington is failing to create, according to a former White House Chief of Staff.
Retired U.S Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly sees the continuing dissolve of America's sense of cohesion, egged on politicians more focused on reelection than what's best for the nation.
"We have a political culture that capitalizes on making us all into hyphenated Americans as opposed to just simply citizens of a great nation," Kelly said. "We have to talk to each other – not as black Americans, Hispanics, LGBT Americans, but simply as Americans – about what is good for our country."
The former White House official shared his musings on the country's future and the forces that menace it during his talk before a packed house inside the Stardust Event Center at Michigan City's Blue Chip Casino Resort & Spa on Sunday. The four-star general's speech, "Geopolitics: Risk, Reward and Balance," opened the 66th season of Purdue University Northwest's Sinai Forum, which runs through December.
Kelly, a native of Boston, served as White House Chief of Staff under President Donald Trump from July 2017 to January of this year. He initially joined the administration in January 2017, serving as head of Homeland Security.
Just a few weeks after Trump's victory in 2016, the president-elect's transition team approached the 45-year Marine veteran, only eight months removed from retirement as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, he said.
Kelly recalled telling his wife about a conversation he had with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who wanted him to meet with Trump in New Jersey to talk about possibly serving with the incoming administration.
"I really think [Trump] needs people like you – badly," he recalled his wife telling him. "Why don't you give it a shot?"
Seeing it as yet another way to serve his nation, Kelly – who described himself as more of a "doer" than a "talker" – took his wife's advice.
Outside a few remarks here or there, Kelly refrained from sharing details about his two-year stint with a tumultuous White House during his talk. Instead, he provided insight into the problems facing America, based on his experiences working under the nation's top executive.
In addition to crises with the U.S.-Mexico border, drugs, ailing infrastructure and a health care system that fails many of its citizens, America also faces threats from countries across the globe.
China – which Kelly described as a "nation on the march" – is one such nation.
Though the retired general said the Asian powerhouse is a competitor, not an enemy, China's leadership is executing a vision for the country that spans years into the future – even if those plans clash with the will of its citizens, he said.
"It's in their culture that they set very, very long-term goals," Kelly said. "In the United States, we have a two-year horizon: election to election to election."
Kelly mentioned China's Belt and Road Initiative, in which the nation's government invests in infrastructure projects in South America and Africa, giving it control and influence of roads, airports and waterways across the world.
In contrast, Kelly described another of America's competitors, Russia, as a nation struggling to survive. Despite its military strength, the former Cold War rival is desperately trying to maintain its influence on the world stage, Kelly said. He warned, however, about Russia's meddling in recent elections, saying the country was responsible for creating false new stories intended to fracture a deeply divided American people even further.
Another country attempting to remain relevant is North Korea, Kelly said. The Asian country, which Kelly called a "prison state" due to its treatment of citizens, is only a player due to leader Kim Jong-un's continuing nuclear ambitions, he said.
"People who are hoping that someone like him will give his weapons up are going to be hoping for a very long, long time," he said.
Kelly also touched on the problems posed by several Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and interests America has in that part of the world.
The former Chief of Staff concluded his speech by stressing the importance of civil discussion and debate among a public informed by a free – and responsible – press.
"We're still working on how to be Americans, every day," Kelly said. "We're still working on how to conduct ourselves, every day. We're not done yet – and the only thing that causes this experiment to fail is for our citizens to not care anymore.
Following his remarks, Kelly fielded questions from the over 1,000 people in the audience.
One attendee asked for Kelly's thoughts on civilian access to assault rifles, such as the AR-15, a contentious topic that has rekindled following another spate of mass shootings in recent months.
"Knowing guns the way I do ... I don't why someone would need those kinds of weapons, but the Constitution says they have a right to own [them], and I have to respect that," Kelly said.
The former general added that he believes governments could do a better job of preventing criminals – or people with mental illness – from getting their hands on firearms.
Kelly also addressed the controversial migrant child separation issue that plagued the administration during his tenure last year.
The general said then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement of a zero-tolerance policy for those crossing the border illegally – which resulted in the controversial practice of separating migrant parents from children – took many in the administration by surprise. As a result, departments such as Homeland Security "took a face shot" that could have been prevented with more careful planning.
"It shouldn't have happened, but it did, but we ended it pretty quickly," he said.
Another audience member asked Kelly what was harder — serving 45 years in the military or two years in the White House.
"The Marine Corps was a pleasure," was his only response.
The Sinai Forum will continue next month with a speech by Liz Murray, co-founder and executive director of the Arthur Project, a mentoring program that works with at-risk youth. Murray's talk, "From Homeless to Harvard," will take place Oct. 6 at PNW's Westville Campus.
Those interested in learning more about the talk or this year's lineup of speakers can visit pnw.edu/sinai-forum.