Former Pentagon leaders warn of strained civil-military relations


Former Pentagon defense secretaries and top generals warned on Tuesday that political polarization and other societal tensions create an “exceptionally difficult” environment for maintaining the traditional relationship between the military and civilian worlds.

The assessment is the basis of an extraordinary open letter signed by eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adhering to the military tradition of political impartiality, the leaders do not blame any leader or political party for the situation, but note that the last presidential election was the first in more than a century to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

Former Pentagon leaders said the current environment is difficult for a variety of reasons, including deep political divisions and the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and expressed concern that the situation could worsen.

At the same time, the US military has ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘without all objectives being satisfactorily achieved’ and is preparing for ‘more formidable competition’ with other nations, the leaders write .

“Looking forward, all of these factors may well get worse before they get better,” the letter said. “In such an environment, it is helpful to revisit the fundamental principles and best practices by which civilian and military professionals have conducted sound U.S. civil-military relations in the past – and can continue to do so, if they are vigilant. and attentive.”

The signatories of the letter, published Tuesday morning by War on the Rocks, include former President Donald Trump’s two confirmed defense secretaries, Jim Mattis and Mark T. Esper, who both clashed with the president and were removed from their positions. Mattis, after leaving office, denounced Trump as a threat to the US Constitution that attempted to play Americans against each other, while Esper resisted Trump’s desire to use active duty troops against people protesting the police killing of George Floyd and later said Trump was unfit. for office.

The signatories also include former defense secretaries from the Republican and Democratic administrations and each of the Pentagon’s retired senior officers since October 2001: Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, Navy Gen. Peter Pace , Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, Army General Martin Dempsey, and Navy General Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

The genesis of the letter was a discussion that began in the spring between Dempsey and Peter Feaver, a civil-military affairs specialist who is sometimes consulted by Pentagon leaders and who teaches with Dempsey at Duke University. They wanted to define best practices for civil-military affairs after Trump and some of his advisers alarmed Pentagon leaders with their rhetoric and ideas, Feaver said.

“We realized there was a need to reaffirm what civilian control means and how it applies,” Feaver said. “It was striking that when General Dempsey approached them to implicate them, to one person they said, ‘Oh, yeah. It is important. We need to. ”

Feaver said there was haggling between the signatories over wording and tone before agreeing on the final version.

“There was a desire to ensure that this document was non-partisan and did not look like partisan criticism of any single individual,” Feaver said.

Mullen, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in an interview that he fears the United States is “on the verge of losing a democracy,” describing the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol as a wake-up call.

Virtually “everything is politicized” right now, Mullen said, putting strong pressure on military leaders to ignore their nonpartisan traditions.

“We live in remarkably confusing times, and clarity on this issue is very important,” Mullen said. “It’s a really dangerous time for us in the military, and the forces are there to try to politicize us more, so clarity here is really important.”

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who served as defense secretary in the Obama administration, said he was increasingly concerned about “irresponsible” and “fiery” political attacks on US institutions as they approached midterm elections.

Persistent false claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent have prompted many Americans to question their government’s credibility, and Republican lawmakers are now warning that if they retake the House, they will target Justice Department leaders. Justice who investigated potential wrongdoing by Trump, Hagel noted. .

“When you add all of that up, it gives you an idea of ​​where we’re going and a concern about our future,” Hagel said.

The letter states that democracy requires that “civilian and military leaders – and the base they lead – adopt and implement effective civilian control” of the US military. The letter also states that civilian control of the military can be exercised by the judiciary when an administration’s decisions are challenged, and that a court decision is decisive because military leaders are bound by law and the professional ethics to refuse to carry out illegal or unconstitutional orders. .

Military officials are required to carry out lawful orders even if they doubt their wisdom, but civilian officials must “give the military ample opportunity to express their doubts in appropriate places,” the letter adds. Military officials can raise questions about second- and third-order effects and offer alternative ideas, leaders note.

The letter also notes that there are “significant limits on the public role of military personnel in partisan politics” and that military and civilian leaders “must be diligent in separating the military from partisan political activity.”

The letter comes as Trump continues to weigh another run for the presidency. Officials advising Trump in 2020 openly floated the idea of ​​involving the military in election disputes, prompting senior military officials to say that “the United States military has no role to play in determining the result of an American election”.

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