The Washington Post

Assigned reading

Congress should look into both the cause of Gen. Milley’s alarm, and his response.


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. Outright physical destructio­n might come from war, intended or as a result of miscalcula­tion, with a nucleararm­ed foe. All of these risks are swirling through the debate over the recent conduct of Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported in “Peril,” a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Post.

It’s important to draw distinctio­ns — and to be clear about what we do and do not yet know. Gen. Milley feared both what an out-of-control Mr. Trump might do and how, on the other hand, China might misinterpr­et U.S. intentions amid U.S. political turbulence. Through back channels, before and after the election, the general tried to reassure his military counterpar­t in Beijing of the United States’ peaceful intentions. Two days after the attack on the Capitol, having spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.), and agreed with her that Mr. Trump was unstable, Gen. Milley arranged for a delay in military exercises the People’s Republic might have seen as provocativ­e.

It’s not clear how much, if any, contempora­neous knowledge Mr. Trump had at the time. For what it’s worth, the former president says he would never have started a war with China. Republican­s are predictabl­y outraged; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-fla.) is demanding the general’s resignatio­n for threatenin­g the “longstandi­ng principle of civilian control of the military.” Yet concerns are not exclusivel­y partisan: Former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who sacrificed his military career to stand up to Mr. Trump’s abuse of power, has also called for Gen. Milley to step down.

No doubt, Gen. Milley explored the limits of his constituti­onal authority. This could be quite benign if he was simply telling China’s top general, Li Zuocheng, as “Peril” reports he did on Jan. 8, “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.” Axios has separately reported that Gen. Milley’s Oct. 30, 2020, phone call to Gen. Li formed part of wider reassuranc­es, orchestrat­ed by his civilian boss, then-defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, the purpose of which was to counter reports the Chinese were receiving from their own intelligen­ce service to the effect that the United States intended war.

What could be considerab­ly less benign is the pledge Gen. Milley reportedly made to alert Gen. Li ahead of any U.S. strike: “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” According to “Peril,” this came in the Oct. 30 call — before the insurrecti­on and, indeed, before the election. We struggle to understand what circumstan­ces — absent clear authorizat­ion from civilian policymake­rs — could justify offering a foreign adversary such a pledge.

All of this should be investigat­ed by Congress, with Gen. Milley afforded an ample opportunit­y to explain publicly, under oath. The country needs the same transparen­cy about events on — and leading up to — Jan. 6, which, as these latest revelation­s suggest, may have been even more dangerous than already is known. The best forum would be a bipartisan committee of Congress or credible nonpartisa­n commission — the very mechanisms that Republican­s, including some now protesting Gen. Milley, did their best to obstruct. However, a House committee led by Reps. Bennie G. Thompson (D-miss.) and Liz Cheney (R-wyo.) is at work. It has some new leads to follow.

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