ABOVE: Assistant Secretary Cooper consults with a senior U.S. Air Force Pilot as he tours the U.S. corral at the Paris Air Show. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State.
If you hear about the United States announcing the sale of military technology to a foreign ally, R. Clarke Cooper will have had a hand in it.
As assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the State Department, Cooper is charged with advancing national security interests by coordinating with allied nations the sale of U.S. conventional weapons, such as F-35 aircraft, bombs, missiles and firearms. Each year, his bureau facilitates more than $190 billion in U.S. defense transfers.
Among the recipients are democracies like the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan — although others, such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, have repressive governments notorious for criminalizing gay relationships and restricting women’s rights.
As a gay combat veteran, Cooper said he’s aware the United States supplies weapons to countries with less than stellar — even abysmal — records on human and civil rights.
“I’ve probably spent a good chunk of my life serving in places where one’s orientation like mine, would be either defined as criminal or even under the threat of a death sentence,” Cooper said. “But it doesn’t preclude us from presenting our people forward into these places, and it certainly doesn’t suspend our bilateral relationships.”
Cooper is acquainted with policies that suppress gay people. In the early Obama years, Cooper, as executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, worked with Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and coordinated litigation that compelled the Pentagon to support open service.
Speaking with the Washington Blade in his office at the State Department on Aug. 21 about his present role, Cooper said the weapons sales are about a different thing entirely: Maintaining global security with U.S. allies to limit the influence of adversaries like Russia and China.
“It is always going to be what U.S. interests do we have in that particular country, in that region that we need to protect,” Cooper said. “That is overriding. Full stop. Always will be.”
Although Cooper is a Trump appointee (making him one of the handful of openly gay officials in the administration), the sale of weapons to these countries spans both Democratic and Republican administrations, including those of Trump, Obama, Clinton and both Bushes.
It’s the wiggle-room in between, Cooper said, that enables the United States to advocate for decriminalization of same-sex relationships and women’s role in society. Among these efforts, he said, are the United Nations’ Women, Peace & Security initiative and requirements on troop-contributing countries in global peacekeeping operations.
“There are a number of countries that have been challenging either statutes or policies on women and the LGBT community, who are significant troop contributors to U.N. peacekeeping operations or African Union peacekeeping operations,” Cooper said. “That does provide us a point of entree as a department to advocate for those communities.”
Cooper said the process for the arms transfer can take years, and during that time, red flags addressed in the State Department Human Rights Report or regional contextual issues could come into play.
“At the end of the day, though, regardless of whatever outlying issues there are, it’s always going to be about what’s in our interest,” Cooper said. “Again, not a new protocol, that is sustained.”
Weapons sales are but one part of the job of managing the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. The responsibilities also include helping coordinate diplomacy and defense policy, assisting countries with clearing explosive hazards and building a capable and accountable staff of political-military practitioners.
Cooper won Senate confirmation in May after his nomination by President Trump was pending for about 10 months. Since that time, Cooper said his day-to-day life on the job is unpredictable and “predicated on what’s happening globally.”
“I can have a day where I know that, OK, I’ve got calendar items, there’s either a meeting at the National Security Council, or there’s a briefing on Capitol Hill, or I’ve got to make sure I got to get a decision up to Secretary [Mike] Pompeo,” Cooper said. “Those are things that are on our calendar, and I can plan [for], what we don’t plan for is a particular reaction from an adversary or a posturing or threatening act by an adversary, and how that might be disruptive, and how we have to react.”
Cooper knows his stuff. Over the course of the interview, he quickly rattles off military acronyms, policy initiatives and recalls historical policies set by the Untied States and allies in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Although Cooper said he’s forced to speak in generalities because much of his work is sensitive and classified, he identified both Russia and China as adversaries the United States is seeking to limit through weapons sales to allies.
“When we’re talking about the national security strategy that is very much focused on China and Russia,” Cooper said. “So when we’re looking at how we’re prioritizing not only foreign military financing, and foreign military sales and security assistance, all of that is looking to bolster and support our security partners who may be either directly challenged by Moscow or Beijing.”
In historical context, Cooper said those partners have been limited to countries bordering Russia and China, but in an asymmetric environment where the world is flat, those partnerships are “much broader than that.”
“When we are looking at security assistance, when we’re looking at presence and when we’re looking at influence, countering China is inclusive of Africa, and the African continent, countering Russia is inclusive of, well, this hemisphere as well,” Cooper said.
In terms of China, Cooper also identified the Indo-Pacific region as an area “where we have put significant attention and resources.”
“That is, we’re wanting to make sure that is it not only free and open for trade, but unmolested, and undisrupted by China,” Cooper said. “That does help us as far as prioritization.”
It’s a dream job for Cooper, who following his stint from 2010 to 2012 at Log Cabin continued service in the military as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. His tours include United States Africa Command, Special Operations Command Africa, Joint Special Operations Task Force Trans-Sahara and Special Operations Command Central.
In a previous life during the Bush administration, Cooper worked in the State Department as a representative to the United Nations and an adviser at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Immediately before his confirmation, Cooper was director of intelligence planning for Joint Special Operations Command’s Joint Inter-Agency Task Force in the National Capital Region.
But it’s also a dirty job, according to a majority of Americans. Last month, the Chicago Council for Global Affairs issued survey data finding 70 percent of Americans believe that selling weapons to other countries makes the United States less safe, not more.
That view cuts across party lines, with 75 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans believing the United States is worse off for the weapons sales. Another 20 percent say the weapons sales make no difference.
Elliot Imse, a spokesperson for the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which has sought to facilitate the appointment of LGBT people to federal government posts, had an altogether different complaint about Cooper: Too white male, not LGBT enough.
“All aspects of our government have been dominated by straight white cisgender men — and that perspective, and conscious or unconscious bias, seeps into every policy decision our country makes,” Imse said. “Better decisions are made — whether about our economy, international relations or national defense — when people of color, women, LGBTQ people and other diverse voices are part of the conversation.”
Imse pointed out Cooper is an appointee in the Trump administration, which has gained a reputation for being hostile to LGBT people and other minorities.
“The Trump administration is still the Trump administration and the people they appoint rarely reflect our values, but the hope is that even those who don’t can provide some new openings toward more inclusive thinking,” Imse said. “There will be no miracles, however, as this administration remains fundamentally opposed to equality.”
There’s one other aspect of Cooper’s job: It’s macho and consists of engagements with military officials and foreign leaders in countries hostile to LGBT rights.
Cooper, however, said being gay has “not at all” come up as an issue.
“I have not encountered anything that would be interpreted or defined as counter to supportive,” he said. “I’ve not witnessed or assessed anything that would have been degrading, or holding me back in my career.”
Cooper pivoted to his time in the military immediately after his tenure at Log Cabin and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal to emphasize the transition in the way the United States views gay people, including in the military. At the time, Cooper said no one else with whom he served was aware of his time at the Republican LGBT group.
“I think one of the best things, probably the most equitable place for the LGBT community is the military,” Cooper said. “Because it is such a merit based place. Again, you either are able to meet requirements, and you’re able to fulfill those requirements. And then there are certain programs like I was in that have very specific assessment and selection procedures. But none of them factor in orientation. None.”
At the same time, Cooper developed his relationship with his now husband Michael Marin, who’s also an active duty officer. Cooper said as members of the military they were both expected to attend each other’s functions as a date.
When the time came for marriage, Cooper said he informed his commander, per military transition dating back to the 18th century, and received an enthusiastic response. Not only that, Cooper said, but his peers in the military barracks were supportive.
“They were making jokes about life’s gonna be a little easier being married to a guy,” Cooper said. “I was like, What? ‘You can fart in bed and stuff.’ And so I’m sitting here thinking, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. We’ve gotten to that point where it’s like there, and then they’re giving marital advice.”
Cooper said he realizes that transition may surprise older gay men, who are used to the idea of the military being hostile to gays. Holding back emotion for a brief moment, Cooper said, “The exciting part of this is not everybody gets to see the fruits of their labor, and they don’t get to see it as quickly.”
Still, Cooper conceded what has changed in the military for gays in the aftermath of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may not be true in all areas of the United States.
Invoking a time before the civil rights era for black Americans — when they were treated more equitably in the military after desegregation, but not in other places of the country — Cooper said the same holds true for gay people at military bases, which he said have become “islands of equality.”
“Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I’m a peer. I’m equal,” Cooper said. “There is no difference…I’m married. My spouse is identified by the Department of Defense as my spouse, not my partner, my spouse. Step into Fayetteville: Not so much.”
But Cooper stopped short of criticizing the transgender military ban implemented under the Trump administration. Asked if based on that experience whether he opposes the policy, Cooper replied, “No.”
Cooper relented by saying “if someone is trans and they are capable of serving, they should be serving,” but towed the line of the Defense Department.
“This is not my wheelhouse right now, but my understanding of where the current status is with the Department of Defense is that there is no ban that’s in place,” Cooper said.
Under the Trump administration, service members are discharged who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria or are prescribed transition-related care. In terms of enlistments, the policy bars applicants with a history of gender dysphoria — unless the individuals are willing to serve in their biological sex (an extremely small number of transgender people). Applicants who obtained transition-related care are outright banned.
In a recent Washington Blade article on the transgender policy, which was implemented in April, the military reported no discharges — although transgender rights advocates have doubts about those numbers.
“I do know that [James] Mattis and [Mark] Esper made clear that if we are going to address readiness across the board, there was a refocus on people’s weight, people’s exposure to drug and alcohol abuse…if people had to come off line from service, for whatever reason,” Cooper said, adding he’s “not equating someone’s status with other issues.”
Asked if that means he’s fine with the policy, Cooper replied, “If I understand it correctly, there’s not a ban on trans service. There’s not an operative ban on trans service at the department.”
Pressed again by the Blade about the issue, Cooper said, “I think it’s I think it’s still being addressed.” (The issue is considered resolved by the Trump administration.)
“I know that depending on where somebody may be in transition, that that was probably part of the dialogue,” Cooper said. “I say probably because I’m guessing because I wasn’t a part of that conversation.”
Informed by the Blade an estimated 14,700 transgender people are serving in the military, Cooper said those service members should be able to stay “if they’re in current service, and they’re deployable.”
Asked whether he had any input on Log Cabin’s recent controversial endorsement of Trump, Cooper distanced himself and said he hasn’t been involved in politics for some time.
“I’ve been in a Hatch Act space now for quite a while,” Cooper said. “So I can say from previous experience of how those work. Any group that would be seeking endorsement of any candidate usually is going to be doing some homework prior to doing that. But I have zero visibility on what either they or the RNC is doing.”
Cooper, however, still has allies from his days at Log Cabin.
Christian Berle, a gay Republican who worked with Cooper at Log Cabin on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, praised his one-time colleague.
“He’s a conservative, so locking himself to the White House fence has never been who he is, but he has, in my experience, used his personal and political connections to advocate for those who he knows are disadvantaged,” Berle said.
Berle said Cooper’s efforts during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal process were “rooted in his frustration” about privileged gay people like him being able to serve in high-profile civilian positions, but others not being allowed to serve in the military.
“I think Clarke is very capable of using his positions, his opportunity to interact with Secretary Pompeo and other members of the administration to argue for a fairer [world],” Berle said. “I think there is a lot more that needs to be done, a lot of people elsewhere in the administration who also need to stand up, but I’m confident in the work that Clarke is doing to raise the voice to stand up for LGBT members of the diplomatic corps.”