The Washington Post

Past Pentagon leaders warn of strains on the civilian-military relationsh­ip

- BY DAN LAMOTHE

The Pentagon’s former defense secretarie­s and top generals warned Tuesday that political polarizati­on and other societal strains are creating an “exceptiona­lly challengin­g” 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 defense secretarie­s and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adhering to the military’s tradition of nonpartisa­nship, the leaders do not blame any political leader or party for the situation, but note that the last presidenti­al election was the first in more than a century to have the peaceful transfer of power disrupted.

The former Pentagon leaders said the current environmen­t is challengin­g for a variety of reasons, including deep political divisions and the impacts of the coronaviru­s pandemic, and say they fear that the situation could worsen.

At the same time, the U.S. military has ended wars in Iraq and Afghanista­n “without all the goals satisfacto­rily accomplish­ed” and is preparing for “more daunting competitio­n” with other nations, the leaders write.

“Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better,” the letter states. “In such an environmen­t, it is helpful to review the core principles and best practices by which civilian and military profession­als have conducted healthy American civil-military relations in the past — and can continue to do so, if vigilant and mindful.”

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, both of whom clashed with the president and were removed from their positions. Mattis, after leaving office, denounced Trump as a threat to the U.S. Constituti­on who tried to turn Americans against one another, 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 earlier defense secretarie­s from both Republican and Democratic administra­tions and each of the Pentagon’s retired top officers since October 2001: Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Marine Gen. 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 scholar 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 that there was a need for a restatemen­t of what civilian control means, and how it applies,” Feaver said. “It was striking that as General Dempsey reached out to them to get them involved, to a person they said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s important. We need to do that.’ ”

Feaver said there was some haggling among the signatorie­s over wording and tone before they settled on the final version.

“There was a desire to make sure that this document was not partisan and did not sound like a partisan critique of any single individual,” Feaver said.

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

Virtually “everything is politicize­d” at the moment, Mullen said, putting great pressure on military leaders to disregard 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 out there to try to politicize us more, so clarity here is really important.”

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who served as a defense secretary in the Obama administra­tion, said he has grown concerned about the “irresponsi­ble” and “heated” political attacks on U.S. institutio­ns as the midterm elections loom.

Continued false allegation­s 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 take back the House, they will target Justice Department leaders who have investigat­ed potential wrongdoing by Trump, Hagel noted.

“When you add all of this, it gives you a sense for where we’re going, and a concern about our future,” Hagel said.

The letter states that democracy requires “civilian and military leaders — and the rank-and-file they lead — to embrace and implement effective civilian control” of the U.S. military. The letter also says that civilian control of the military can be exercised by the judicial branch when an administra­tion’s decisions are challenged, and that a court ruling is decisive because military leaders are obligated by law and profession­al ethics to refuse to carry out illegal or unconstitu­tional orders.

Military officials are required to carry out legal orders, even if they doubt their wisdom, but civilian officials should “provide the military ample opportunit­y to express their doubts in appropriat­e venues,” the letter adds. Military officials can raise questions about second- and third-order effects and propose alternativ­e ideas, the 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 both “must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”

The letter comes as Trump continues to weigh another run for president. Officials advising Trump in 2020 openly floated the idea of having the military intervene in voting disputes, prompting senior Army officials to say there is “no role for the U.S. military in determinin­g the outcome of an American election.”

 ?? BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? The open letter signed by 13 former civilian and military leaders of the Pentagon does not blame any political leader for the situation.
BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST The open letter signed by 13 former civilian and military leaders of the Pentagon does not blame any political leader for the situation.

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