Politicians, not generals, need to fix America's civil-military crisis
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Among all of the revelations which have emerged from books about the Trump administration, two which dropped this week really stand out. According to a new book, America’s highest-ranking military officer - the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley - did two highly unusual things in the final months of the Trump administration. I’ll just quote from a report:
Twice in the final months of the Trump administration, the country’s top military officer was so fearful that the president’s actions might spark a war with China that he moved urgently to avert armed conflict.
In a pair of secret phone calls, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa.
“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley told him. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”
In the book’s account, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack, stressing the rapport they’d established through a backchannel. “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
And the second thing:
Milley worried that Trump could 'go rogue,' the authors write.
"You never know what a president's trigger point is," Milley told his senior staff, according to the book.
In response, Milley took extraordinary action, and called a secret meeting in his Pentagon office on January 8 to review the process for military action, including launching nuclear weapons. Speaking to senior military officials in charge of the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon's war room, Milley instructed them not to take orders from anyone unless he was involved.
"No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I'm part of that procedure," Milley told the officers, according to the book. He then went around the room, looked each officer in the eye, and asked them to verbally confirm they understood.
"Got it?" Milley asked, according to the book.
'Milley considered it an oath,' the authors write.
These things are, on the face of it, not normal. In the United States, civilians are supposed to be in charge, not the generals. It’s a democracy, not a military dictatorship. Generals shouldn’t be going around telling their subordinates not to follow the president’s orders - if an order is lawful, the military is supposed to follow it. Likewise, while there’s a long tradition of back-channel communication between spies and officers working for two adversaries, at least one of the things Milley was saying to his Chinese counterpart - that he would warn China in advance of an American attack - was, if reported accurately (and I’ll get to that), highly unusual.
The reaction to these revelations among everyone ranging from Republican politicians to academics who study civilian control of the military has been pretty intense. Republicans have quickly lined up behind the idea that Milley committed “treason” or even “a coup”. Trump is apparently calling up anyone who will listen and saying that Milley should be arrested, and this is already all you hear on places like Fox.
It’s not just Republicans looking to score points - anyone who worries about the state of America’s institutions and democracy ought to be asking questions about this. If the military gets into the habit of deciding that it can just choose which orders to follow and start making up American foreign and security policy on its own, the country is in trouble.
The concern with civil-military relations in an advanced democracy like the United States isn’t over something as crude as a military coup, but rather about retaining democratic control of the direction of American foreign and defense policy. Just like you wouldn’t want a general deciding on his own to nuke Beijing, you shouldn’t want him to decide not to nuke Beijing either. It’s not ultimately his decision to make, but one for the people via their democratic representatives. Likewise, generals who freelance messages to adversaries rather than sticking to the government line could risk destabilizing tense international relationships, something particularly dangerous where nuclear weapons are involved.
That being said, I think the situation here is complicated, and I’m both more worried and less worried than a lot of Milley’s critics. I’m less worried about the precedents that this sets for the future of civilian control of the military, because I think that the situation Milley was faced with between October 2020 and January 2021 was pretty unique. But there’s an important caveat to that, and the caveat is why I’m more worried. The fact Milley felt it necessary to take these actions was a sign of severe deterioration in America’s civilian political institutions caused by Donald Trump and the extreme political partisanship which allowed him to act the way he did. I’m worried about the future because those conditions don’t seem to be going away, and may even be getting worse - but what needs fixing is the politics, not the generals.
Milley in China
Let’s take the two revelations in turn. The one about Milley communicating with China and telling them that he would warn Beijing about any upcoming American attack might seem like the worst, and the one that makes the charge of TREASON seem most compelling. But I actually am less worried about this one for two simple reasons. Firstly, I don’t really believe it and don’t think the Chinese would have believed it either. Secondly, it seems that Woodward and Costa have mischaracterized what happened.
Now let me be clear, I’m not saying that Milley didn’t actually say these words, or something to their effect. There were apparently a lot of people on the call who heard him. But what I do have are a lot of doubts about whether these words would look the same if we saw them in their full context. Woodward has a long history of getting stuff not exactly wrong, but also not exactly right when you understand the context in which it happened. And in this case I think we have a number of reasons to question whether this went down exactly as Woodward and Costa are implying.
Firstly, one issue here is that any promise by Milley to warn Beijing about an impending American attack before the Chinese themselves knew was simply not believable. If Trump had actually ordered a military strike against China and Milley told Beijing, this would just give China the excuse to pre-emptively strike American targets and perhaps disrupt the American attack, costing potentially thousands of American lives. And it still wouldn’t achieve Milley’s goal of preventing a conflict, which in fact would now be even more likely to escalate further. You would have to be a genuine, Benedict Arnold-level, America-hating traitor to have done it, and it is just absurd for a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to suggest he was going to, and equally absurd to think that the Chinese would believe him.
Josh Rogin @joshrogin"...The risk is [Milley] could have caused the Chinese to miscalculate and take some sort of diplomatic, economic or military action with far ranging consequences, because he was giving the wrong signal, having no understanding of the context in which he was making the call." 3/3
Secondly, the fact Milley made these statements with dozens of people listening in, and that the transcripts were distributed around the government, suggests he wasn’t trying to help Beijing re-enact Pearl Harbor. The call was approved by the Acting Secretary of Defense, who had been appointed by Trump. It was “secret” in the sense that the public didn’t know about it, but there were 15 other U.S. government officials listening in. And what they were concerned with wasn’t some sort of deep state coup, but trying to reassure China at a time when the Chinese apparently believed that America might be preparing to start a war, as per the NYT:
In the days leading up to the 2020 election, the book reveals, American intelligence showed that the Chinese believed that Mr. Trump planned to launch a military strike to create an international crisis that he could claim to solve as a last-ditch effort to beat Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Beijing had every reason to believe that Trump might do this - after all, creating crises and then pretending to solve them was a mainstay of his foreign policy. He had done the same thing with North Korea, threatening to destroy the country with “FIRE AND FURY” in 2017 unless it gave up its nuclear program, then holding a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un and declaring that eternal peace had arrived even though absolutely nothing had changed with regard to the North’s nuclear program.
Viewed in this context, Milley’s message to his counterpart in Beijing - don’t worry, we’re not actually going to attack - was reasonable, at least so long as no attack was planned. After all, unless Trump ordered a strike, Milley was telling the truth, and communicating the government’s line honestly. There’s no civil-military relations problem there.
The part about Milley speaking to Li if an attack was going to happen is more puzzling, but I suspect if we saw it in context and not sensationalized by Woodward and Costa, it would not be. Most likely, it was an acknowledgement that in the event of a rapid escalation of hostilities, Milley and Li were going to be talking, either to try to defuse them, or because China would know from its own intelligence sources that America had initiated an attack. Travel times for missiles, planes and jets are long, and they’re visible, meaning China would likely see the attack coming before things started exploding. And you can be pretty sure one of the first things he was going to do was pick up the crisis hotline and talk to Milley. One of these two reasons - either an attempt to defuse tension, or to talk once American intentions became clear - likely account for what Milley meant by “call ahead of time”.
Breakdown at home
We also need to remember what was happening in the country between October 2020 and January 2021, especially to understand the second potentially trouble piece of Milley’s behavior, the instruction to his subordinates to check with him before following presidential orders.
The important thing to remember - and the thing that we have forgotten too quickly - is that during this time Donald Trump, with the support of a large part of the Republican Party, was involved in a full-scale attack on America’s constitutional order. After losing the 2020 election, they sought to have the result declared invalid, and when that failed Trump egged his supporters on shortly before they ransacked the U.S. Capitol and nearly killed prominent politicians, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
While all of this was going on, renewed questions were surfacing about Trump’s mental condition following his acute bout of Covid-19 in early October. Not just Milley but other, civilian officials like former Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General Bill Barr (formerly one of Trump’s most reliable allies) were gravely concerned about Trump’s mental state and the damage he might inflict on the country through his increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior.
When Milley addressed his subordinates and told them to keep him in the loop if they received orders to start a war, it was just two days after the failed insurrection on January 6th. Trump, whose rhetoric had already led to the first non-peaceful transfer of power in American history, was giving every indication that he still refused to accept the outcome of the presidential election. His state of mind was highly erratic. If he was going to start a war either in an attempt to stay in office or out of sheer madness, the officers in the National Military Command Center who Milley addressed would be the ones to execute his orders.
I ask you to put yourself in General Milley’s shoes, and consider what he was supposed to do. The rulebook says soldiers should follow a president’s orders if they’re lawful. But what happens if the president has already torn up the rulebook, rejected an election result, encouraged an insurrection, and now wants to start a war so he can justify staying in office? It is not just constitutionally perverse but also unrealistic on a human level to expect that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is going to let tens of millions of people die and America’s constitutional democracy be destroyed because on paper he’s not supposed to care whether the president giving the orders is a madman or not.
Reinforcing this is the fact that the accountability mechanism which is supposed to keep rogue presidents in check, impeachment, is completely broken in our partisan age. Republicans’ focus on their own political fortunes, and their hatred of Democrats, is so intense that they were willing to ignore basically anything Trump did rather than remove him from office. Many of them still can’t even admit that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. These are not the people who were going to stand in Trump’s way. Ironically, one reason they’re able to act this way is because they think that people like Milley will protect the country from the consequences of their own irresponsibility - even though now they want to make him out to be a traitor.
This situation isn’t even unprecedented. In 1974, in the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, he was depressed, drinking heavily, high on prescription drugs, and about to be forced from office by Watergate. Alarmed, the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, ordered American nuclear commanders to check with either him or Henry Kissinger before accepting any nuclear launch orders from the president. Schlesinger, it is true, was a civilian, not a general. But in 2021, Milley didn’t have the option of relying on the Defense Secretary, who was the same man who had refused on January 6th to send the National Guard to assist the police officers valiantly defending the U.S. Capital from a MAGA mob.
The way forward
Schlesinger’s action in 1974 didn’t create a precedent because the unique conditions which gave birth to it - a crazed, drunk, high president - didn’t repeat themselves. It’s not like Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan’s defense secretaries started ignoring lawful orders just because Schlesinger had taken a few precautions. There’s no particular reason why Milley’s actions now should create a precedent either - but nor, frankly, is there some fancy institutional mechanism or cultural change in the armed forces which could prevent a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from doing this again if he felt he needed to. The president’s reliance on the military to execute orders related to warfare are just always going to create these kinds of possibilities.
The real answer to this problem doesn’t lie with the generals, but with the politicians - and the public. America’s escalating partisan political warfare is quickly tarnishing all the institutions it touches - the Supreme Court, the civil service, and yes, the military. For so long as one party is determined to elevate a craven authoritarian and to resist all constitutional obligations to police his behavior, the country - and even Republicans themselves - rely on people like Milley for protection from the consequences of their actions. Situations like Trump’s behavior between October 2020 and January 2021 will force others to push the boundaries in defense of constitutional democracy if that is what is necessary. Censuring them for doing so is perverse when the real and only solution is to stop electing and enabling craven authoritarians.
Unfortunately, the current trajectory of the Republican Party and its voters doesn’t give us much hope that there is an off-ramp from this downward spiral, and a new, smarter version of Trump might be more competent at consolidating his control over the military and national security bureaucracy and overcoming roadblocks set up by people like Milley. Stopping that from happening, not criticizing the generals, should be American civilians’ highest priority. It’s politics that’s broken, not the generals.
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