Has the President’s Chief Military Advisor broken America’s chain of command?

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CIVIL CONTROL of the armed forces is a hallmark of a mature democracy. Complaints from the founders of America included the dispatch of troops by Britain without the consent of elected local leaders; they believed that maintaining civilian control over the armed forces was an essential bulwark against tyranny. Donald Trump’s tumultuous tenure as president, including the chaotic past few months, appears to have put that tradition to the test. Mark Milley, America’s senior military official, will appear before Congress this week – a key question will be whether he’s broken the chain of command. In Peril, a book published September 21, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, both journalists, strikingly claimed that General Milley called his Chinese counterpart first in October and then in the final days of Mr. Trump’s presidency to see him reassure: “We will not attack or carry out kinetic operations against you.” He is also said to have made high-ranking American officers promise to consult him if an increasingly unpredictable Mr. Trump asked them to fire a nuclear weapon. If what Messrs Woodward and Costa have reported is correct, did General Milley violate the military chain of command?

Although the president regularly consults others, the constitution gives him sole direct command of the American armed forces. America has faced overzealous generals, but most have been crushed. Harry Truman exonerated General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War for publicly criticizing the president and trying to escalate the conflict. Fear of nuclear war led John F. Kennedy to cement that power in the hands of the president.

Orders go from him through the Minister of Defense to the responsible commander and continue until an operation is carried out. This will ensure that the top two decision-makers, the President and the Secretary of Defense, are civilians with democratic legitimacy. The chain of command also provides an opportunity to resolve disputes; disgruntled soldiers send their complaints up the chain, starting with a supervisor. Soldiers are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the law that governs their conduct. When soldiers believe that an order is violating the UCMJ, e.g. B. through a crime against humanity, or believe that the order has not been properly checked, they can express themselves and ask for clarification from above.

It is crucial that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Milley, sit outside that chain. He is appointed by the President for a single term of four years. Its job is not to make decisions, but to advise the president and defense minister and point out the costs and benefits of each option. And in some ways that is as true of nuclear weapons as it is of ordinary ones. The chairman would normally be consulted on a decision as momentous as the use of nuclear weapons, but he is not an integral part of the nuclear chain of command. Its role is to convey presidential orders – and it can be bypassed if a president so wishes. If General Milley insisted on his admission, he may have exceeded his mandate.

His talks with General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army are a different matter. It is not uncommon for a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to speak to friends and foes alike. In 2017, General Milley’s predecessor and his Chinese counterpart even created a “joint strategic dialogue mechanism” to improve communication during the crisis and reduce the risk of misunderstandings. Many of these discussions take place in the open air: On September 22nd, General Milley was pictured in Helsinki next to General Valery Gerasimov, his Russian counterpart.

General Milley’s calls to General Li on October 30 and January 8 were portrayed as the acts of a renegade general undermining an elected president. Recent reports suggest that it was Mark Esper, the then (civilian) defense secretary, who first ran his office to reassure China that America was not looking for war. Subsequent calls from General Milley were reportedly coordinated with the civilian leadership of the Pentagon and included State Department officials. As such, even if General Milley’s alleged message on the first call – a promise to warn the Chinese of an attack – was the process, the process may not have been unusual.

In practice, the machinery of American national security is constantly evolving. Under Barack Obama, the National Security Council (NSC), a body that sits in the White House and coordinates various agencies and departments, often played a role in reviewing military operations and even tactics. Mr. Obama’s last Secretary of Defense Ash Carter tried to narrow his role by telling American commanders not to take calls from members of the NSC without his permission. At the beginning of his tenure, Mr. Trump delegated powers to the Pentagon and gave them more control over the troop strengths deployed. When Mr. Biden took office, he tightened the rules for drone attacks and required the armed forces and the CIA to obtain permission outside of the declared war zones.

All in all, the general appears to have stayed within his position, but the controversy will have wider implications for civil-military relations in America. President Joe Biden has reaffirmed his confidence in the chairman, but Republican lawmakers – already angry with the general’s public defense of “critical racial theory” in June – are calling for his resignation. It will be grilled by Congress on September 28th. His successors could be pulled even tighter by the White House.


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