September 16, 2021

General Milley

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that “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…

“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.’ Li took the chairman at his word, the authors write in the book, ‘Peril,’ which is set to be released next week.” Washington Post

Both sides are critical of Milley’s calls as reported, arguing that, if true, they violated the principle of civilian control of the military:

If this is true, it’s astonishing. I have never heard or read anything like it in the history of U.S. civil-military relations. It would mean Milley stepped out of the chain of command, obstructed what he saw (correctly or not) as the commander in chief’s policies and intentions, and promised to give the enemy’s top general warning of an impending attack (if the president ordered one), thus denying us the advantage of surprise…

“Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the question of whether Milley was right to oppose a surprise attack on China. Do we want the nation’s highest-ranking military officer opposing or circumventing an attack in the way that Milley supposedly did? It would have been better, for democracy and for the chain of command, if Milley had organized a group opposed to attack from within the Defense Department’s civilian directorates, the State Department, the intelligence community, and so forth.”
Fred Kaplan, Slate

“Gen. Milley should be asked to clarify, under oath, the context of his communications with China and nuclear launch procedure when he testifies before the Senate on Sept. 28. America’s military brass rightly has deconfliction channels open with adversaries when their forces are in proximity, but promising a tip off before the President ordered an attack would be an outrageous usurpation…

“Mr. Trump was erratic in the final days of his term, staging an unprecedented if doomed political effort to overturn an American election. But if Gen. Milley genuinely felt the President was that much of a global menace, he should have sounded the alarm and resigned. Figures like William Barr and Don McGahn constrained Mr. Trump’s worst instincts without eviscerating political norms… If Americans are to trust their democratic institutions, and the world’s other powers are to trust America’s defense commitments, it needs to be clear that the military is under the elected President’s control.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“There are many ways to destroy a constitutional democracy. One is by partisan mob attack on its electoral processes, of the kind that President Donald Trump incited at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Another is through military encroachment on civilian authority, in the name of national salvation or some other ostensibly higher cause… We struggle to understand what circumstances — absent clear authorization from civilian policymakers — could justify offering a foreign adversary such a pledge."
Editorial Board, Washington Post

“Keep in mind that after the election Trump had abruptly fired Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and installed a loyalist in his place along with a handful of other henchmen in strategic posts in the Pentagon. He'd pushed out others at the NSA and the CIA and attempted to replace them with cronies. Nobody knew exactly what they were up to but it was very weird for a president to do that in the last two months of his presidency. Even former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quoted in ‘Peril’ saying, ‘he's in a very dark place right now.’ You can't blame Milley or anyone else for fearing the worst…

“I'll leave it to the experts to say whether or not he violated the chain of command so egregiously that he has to go. But I will say this: It's a miracle that we have managed to survive the nuclear age so far with the biggest nuclear arsenal on earth in the hands of irrational leaders like Richard Nixon and Donald Trump...

“We've been lucky so far but I doubt that luck will hold out forever. If we cannot rid the world of these terrifying weapons as we should, or always elect sane, competent people to the presidency as we apparently cannot, the least we could do is find some way to ensure that one unstable person doesn't have the sole power to unleash them. This system must be reformed before something unthinkable happens."
Heather Digby Parton, Salon

"The upheaval of the past year was like a giant stress test of our constitutional system — and it revealed serious risks… Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) [have] come together with the National Security Powers Act, which would require congressional approval for the president to declare national emergencies, conduct arms sales and use military force…

“But legislative prospects depend crucially on support of the White House — which has been notably quiet on these initiatives. Biden entered the Senate in 1973 at a time of peril in our democracy. He entered the White House during another such crisis. Like few other presidents, Biden should hear the clarion call of history to use his bully pulpit to preserve our republic."
Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart, Joel McCleary, and Mark Medish, Politico

From the Right

“It is not the job of the military state, or the intelligence state (James Comey) to override the governing authority granted to the president of the United States. We the people make those choices. If we the people decide to elect a brash gameshow host with a short fuse and no governing experience, then that is the choice we make, yes, even should the republic fall. Unelected bureaucrats and generals holding secret meetings with hostile foreign nations are the things that lead to actual banana republics and military juntas, not mean tweets and yelling at journalists…

“You have to wonder: if Milley was willing to overstep his authority in January, what’s stopping him from believing that an 80-year-old Joe Biden might be incapacitated to the point of not being able to make clear headed decisions regarding actions in, say, Afghanistan? Media pundits and Milley defenders aren’t looking at the long game. But they should. Milley does not become a patriot by suddenly aligning with the wild fantasies of #Resistance Twitter. If he’s willing to overstep his authority with imagined scenarios in the Trump era, how far would he be willing to go in the real world?”
Stephen L. Miller, Spectator World

“When I attended boot camp, we were given all manner of bizarre orders, forcing us to perform to the breaking point, completing tasks that frequently made no sense at all. It was only later that we realized the reason for that sort of training. The military only works when our troops follow orders, and that’s particularly true when you are going into battle. The moment that system breaks down, the military is broken…

“Mark Milley was near the top of that chain of command, but he wasn’t at the top. That position is reserved for the Commander in Chief, as ordained in the Constitution. Undermining the Commander in Chief in this fashion and threatening to break ranks would be unacceptable for any officer or enlisted person, but for someone as far up the ranks as Mark Milley, it’s nothing short of a betrayal to his country…

“If the military had been ordered to attack Chinese vessels or installations, then those targets would have had to be attacked and the President would bear the burden of the results.”
Jazz Shaw, Hot Air

“Recall that General Michael Flynn was wiretapped and questioned by the FBI for talking to the Russian ambassador, even though there is no reason to think that Flynn was carrying a message different from the one the incoming Trump administration would deliver. These allegations unquestionably are vastly more serious than what General Flynn did. Generals don’t get to have their own personal foreign policies. Period.”
The Editors, National Review

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