A new book reports that Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, improperly restricted the president of the United States’ ability to use military force and committed to warning China, an American adversary, of any impending U.S. military action against it. If the book, “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, accurately recounts General Milley’s behavior, his actions could be an egregious series of violations of the norms that govern civil-military relations in the United States.
The context surrounding General Milley’s actions is unclear and may be exculpating. For example, while The Washington Post’s description of “a pair of secret phone calls” suggests furtive behavior, Jennifer Griffin, a Fox News correspondent, reports that there were 15 people on the calls, including a Chinese general and State Department representatives. It’s possible the calls were not secret from his civilian superiors but carried that classification because any conversation with a foreign counterpart would. And the authors of “Peril” are unlikely to know whether the Chinese general “took the chairman at his word,” although they assert it.
There are other potential explanations for General Milley’s actions less salacious than the Woodward and Costa telling accounts for. But the problem runs deeper than the specifics of General Milley’s actions and signals trouble for the relationship between our military and the civilians it is intended to serve.
A phone call between General Milley and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, was reported several months ago as General Milley explaining to her, the person second in the line of succession to the presidency, the legal procedures for the president to initiate nuclear war, something valuable to reaffirm.
Though the president is commander in chief, Congress also provides civilian control of the military and requires all two-star generals and above to commit to informing it of concerns they have about executive branch actions. So General Milley discussing the president’s soundness with the speaker of the House, while unseemly, could be understood as fulfilling his constitutional responsibilities.
It is also true that the U.S.-China military relationship is not well established, so it would be sensible to minimize miscalculation by the Chinese military, which probably poorly understands the American political process, in the confusion after the events of Jan. 6.
Yet General Milley’s actions apparently came as a surprise to at least some Trump administration national security officials. Whether that’s indicative of a clandestine move by the chairman or simply the routine dysfunction of an administration that wasn’t well managed is difficult to assess. We may never find out the full story: It’s unlikely that General Milley or other military leaders would publicly rebut the account, since that would draw them further into the glare of civilian politics.
But even if the Woodward and Costa account sensationalizes General Milley’s actions, his choices are problematic for civil-military relations. Account after account of the Trump administration is rife with General Milley’s friends and colleagues describing his conversations and ascribing the noblest of motives to him. Either General Milley has the most indiscreet circle of acquaintances in Washington or he’s authorizing it to reshape his image.
One can sympathize with the general’s frustration of having as his legacy the image of him striding through Lafayette Square in combat fatigues alongside a president who is threatening to use the military against American citizens and still think it’s unbecoming for the president’s senior military adviser to be so actively working to cast himself as the savior of the Republic.
Nor is the problem just optics. As Carrie Lee rightly assesses in The Washington Post, General Milley talking up his role both damages the trust civilians have in the military and encourages further politicization of the military itself. Presidents who believe the military is working against them or is incapable of maintaining confidentiality will discredit the military’s advice. And future military leaders with less noble motives will be less confined by the civil-military norms that General Milley’s choices are weakening.
In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger instructed military leaders to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing a nuclear launch order from President Richard Nixon. The Costa and Woodward book compares General Milley’s actions to that. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not in the chain of command, but in General Milley’s case, most of the civilian control in the Pentagon was at that point unconfirmed — and probably unconfirmable — by Congress.
Some argue that military leaders interposing themselves between the president and a politically motivated war is the least bad choice. Even in the extreme circumstances of a wildly erratic president attempting to use the military to prevent the transfer of power, it’s dangerous to have military leaders subvert civilian control of the military in the way a chairman of the Joint Chiefs “pulling a Schlesinger” implies. An unsound president is a danger to democracy, but a military that considers itself the arbiter of elected leaders’ lawful authorities is also a danger to democracy.
America’s uniformed leaders did an outstanding job ensuring that our military kept out of politics during and after a contested election. They deserve enormous credit for that professionalism and service to the nation. They’d deserve even more credit if they’d stop publicizing it.