Has the President’s top military adviser broken the American chain of command?
CIVIL CONTROL of the armed forces is the hallmark of a mature democracy. Among the grievances of America’s founders was the deployment of British troops without the consent of local elected officials; they believed that maintaining civilian control of the armed forces was an essential bulwark against tyranny. Donald Trump’s tumultuous tenure as president, including his chaotic final months, seems to have put that tradition to the test. Mark Milley, the top US military official, is due to appear before Congress this week. A central question will be whether he has broken the chain of command. In “Peril,” a book published on September 21, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, both journalists, vividly asserted that General Milley had called his Chinese counterpart, first in October and then in the final days of the presidency. of Mr. Trump, to reassure him. : “We are not going to attack or conduct kinetic operations against you.” He also allegedly made senior US officers promise to consult him if an increasingly erratic Mr. Trump asked them to launch a nuclear weapon. If what MM. Woodward and Costa reported is correct, did General Milley violate the military chain of command?
Although the president regularly seeks the advice of others, the constitution gives him exclusive direct command of the United States armed forces. America has had contact with overzealous generals, but most have been slapped in the face. Harry Truman relieved 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 consolidate this power in the hands of the president.
Orders pass from him, through the Secretary of Defense, to the relevant commander, and until an operation is carried out. This ensures that the two most senior decision-makers, the President and the Defense Secretary, are both civilians with democratic legitimacy. The chain of command also provides a means of resolving disputes; disgruntled soldiers send their complaints up the chain, starting with a senior officer. Soldiers are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the law governing their conduct. If the soldiers believe that an order would violate the UCMJ, for example by committing a crime against humanity, or believe that the order has not been properly considered, they can speak out and ask for clarification of the order. high.
Above all, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, is outside this chain. Appointed by the president for a single term of four years, his task is not to make decisions but to advise the president and the secretary of defense, specifying the costs and benefits of each option. And, in a sense, this is as true for atomic weapons as it is for regular weapons. The president would usually be consulted on a decision as important as the use of nuclear power, but he is not an integral part of the nuclear chain of command. Its role is to transmit presidential orders – and it can be bypassed if a president wishes. If General Milley insisted on its inclusion, he may have overstepped his mandate.
His conversations with General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army are another matter. It is not uncommon for a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to address both friends and enemies. General Milley’s predecessor even created a âjoint strategic dialogue mechanismâ with his Chinese counterpart in 2017 to improve communication in the event of a crisis and reduce the risk of misunderstandings. Many such conversations take place in the open: on September 22, General Milley was photographed in Helsinki alongside General Valery Gerasimov, his Russian counterpart.
General Milley’s appeals to General Li on October 30 and January 8 have been described as the actions of a rogue general subverting an elected president. More recent accounts suggest that it was Mark Esper, then (civilian) Secretary of Defense, who first headed his office to reassure China that America was not seeking war. General Milley’s subsequent appeals were reportedly coordinated with the civilian leadership of the Pentagon and included representatives from the State Department. So the process may not have been unusual, although General Milley’s purported message on the first call – a promise to warn the Chinese of an attack – was.
In practice, the inner workings of US national security are constantly evolving. Under Barack Obama, the National Security Council (NSC), a body that sits in the White House and coordinates between different agencies and departments, often had a role in reviewing military operations and even tactics. Obama’s last Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, has sought to limit his role, telling US commanders that they should not accept appeals from NSC members without his permission. Early in his tenure, Mr. Trump delegated authority to the Pentagon, giving it more control over the levels of troops deployed. When Mr Biden took office, he tightened the rules on drone strikes, forcing the military and the CIA to seek clearance outside declared war zones.
Overall, it appears the general has stayed within his bounds, but the controversy will have a wider impact on civil-military relations in America. President Joe Biden has asserted his confidence in the president, but Republican lawmakers – many of whom are already angry with the general’s public defense of “critical race theory” in June – are demanding his resignation. It will be toast by Congress on September 28. His successors could be held on even more leash by the White House.