Pot­shots blur fine line be­tween pol­i­tics, mil­i­tary

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

The long-stand­ing line separat­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary from the par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal fray is be­ing erased dur­ing the Trump era, Pen­tagon in­sid­ers and re­tired of­fi­cers say, with a brigade of re­tired gen­er­als crit­i­ciz­ing the com­man­der in chief in TV ap­pear­ances and on so­cial me­dia reach­ing a dan­ger­ous level.

Re­tired of­fi­cers on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum have en­listed in an ugly discourse in Wash­ing­ton. Al­though mil­i­tary men and women have been tak­ing stands on spe­cific is­sues and run­ning for of­fice for cen­turies, De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials and a host of re­tired gen­er­als say the at­tacks have be­come personal, bit­ter and harm­ful to the armed forces’ rep­u­ta­tion as an apo­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion that, above all else, re­spects the chain of com­mand and puts coun­try over pol­i­tics.

Ob­servers say the process be­gan with re­tired Navy Adm. William J. Crowe’s en­dorse­ment of Bill Clinton in 1992 and has spi­raled out of con­trol. They warn that par­ti­san­ship could do last­ing dam­age to Amer­i­cans’ faith in the mil­i­tary.

“It’s not nor­mal. I don’t think it does the U.S. mil­i­tary any good,” said re­tired Army Gen. Thomas Spoehr, direc­tor of the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Cen­ter for Na­tional De­fense. “If you have se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers ex­press­ing par­ti­san views, I think it has the po­ten­tial to jeop­ar­dize the amaz­ing trust the Amer­i­can peo­ple con­vey to their mil­i­tary.”

Mr. Spoehr and other re­tired gen­er­als in­ter­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Times say there is plenty of blame to go around, in­clud­ing for Pres­i­dent Trump, who has crit­i­cized mil­i­tary of­fi­cers by name in a way never seen be­fore.

Over the past sev­eral months, the pres­i­dent has taken aim at re­tired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven — the ar­chi­tect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — by say­ing he should have caught the al Qaeda mas­ter­mind sooner.

Mr. Trump also blasted for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis, the for­mer Ma­rine Corps gen­eral who re­signed last month amid a pol­icy dis­agree­ment over U.S. in­volve­ment in Syria and Afghanistan.

“What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Mat­tis dur­ing a Cabi­net meet­ing.

The pres­i­dent also has en­gaged in a bit­ter feud with re­tired Army Gen. Stan­ley M. McChrys­tal, who said that he be­lieves Mr. Trump is im­moral and doesn’t tell the truth.

Mr. Trump re­sponded by say­ing Gen. McChrys­tal is known for his “big, dumb mouth.”

‘Trump is the ac­cel­er­ant’

An­a­lysts and re­tired of­fi­cers say the pres­i­dent’s role in the ero­sion of the line be­tween the mil­i­tary and pol­i­tics can­not be ig­nored.

They point to re­tired Army Gen. Michael Flynn as a piv­otal fig­ure in that ero­sion. The out­spo­ken Trump sup­porter at­tacked Hil­lary Clinton dur­ing the 2016 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion and led chants of “lock her up” in front of a rau­cous crowd. Now, he is await­ing sen­tenc­ing as part of special coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian col­lu­sion with the Trump cam­paign.

Al­though Mr. Flynn made the re­marks, there is a be­lief that Mr. Trump’s sharp tone has helped pull some re­tired of­fi­cers into the po­lit­i­cal muck.

“I think it’s cer­tainly high­lighted by the op­er­at­ing style of this pres­i­dent,” said re­tired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Dep­tula, dean of the Mitchell In­sti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies. “I think the man­ner in which the cur­rent pres­i­dent acts does elicit some of the re­sponses you’re see­ing.”

Other an­a­lysts say Mr. Trump’s ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to dis­re­gard the ad­vice of his mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers — for ex­am­ple, de­cid­ing to with­draw troops from Syria and de­ploy­ing forces to the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der over the ob­jec­tions of Pen­tagon lead­ers — has spurred the back­lash.

“To­day, the politi­ciza­tion process is on steroids,” Gor­don Adams, a pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity’s School of In­ter­na­tional Ser­vice, wrote in a re­cent blog post. “It is not that of­fi­cers have sud­denly gone rogue. It is be­cause this pres­i­dent ar­rived in of­fice un­teth­ered. Trump is the ac­cel­er­ant.”

Mr. Trump, how­ever, also has been the tar­get of un­prece­dented at­tacks. Re­tired gen­er­als and other mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials reg­u­larly pa­rade across ca­ble TV to as­sail the com­man­der in chief on personal and pol­icy lev­els.

Just days be­fore midterm elec­tions in Novem­ber, re­tired Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, for­mer chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, railed against the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to send troops to the south­ern bor­der. Crit­ics in­ter­preted his re­marks as en­cour­age­ment for vot­ers to sup­port Democrats.

“Our men and women in uni­form are bet­ter trained, bet­ter equipped, and bet­ter led so they meet any threat with con­fi­dence,” Mr. Dempsey tweeted Nov. 1. “A waste­ful de­ploy­ment of over-stretched Sol­diers and Marines would be made much worse if they use force dis­pro­por­tional to the threat they face. They won’t.”

Mr. Dempsey’s com­ments, along with the words and ac­tions of Mr. McChrys­tal, Mr. Flynn and other re­tired of­fi­cers, are part of a trou­bling trend of well-re­spected mil­i­tary men and women us­ing their au­thor­i­ta­tive voices to in­flu­ence the po­lit­i­cal process, ob­servers say.

“I was dis­ap­pointed and, frankly, sur­prised that Gen. Marty Dempsey, our for­mer chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in­cluded a photo of him­self in uni­form and touted his for­mer po­si­tion when he tweeted an anti-Trump mes­sage im­me­di­ately prior to the elec­tion last Novem­ber,” said re­tired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter on Law, Ethics and Na­tional Se­cu­rity at Duke Uni­ver­sity School of Law. “In my book, to use the uni­form in con­junc­tion with a such a par­ti­san mes­sage so close to an elec­tion is a mis­take, es­pe­cially for Dempsey since he was once con­sid­ered an icon of the apo­lit­i­cal of­fi­cer.”

A lack of trust

Broadly speak­ing, some an­a­lysts be­lieve the new par­a­digm could un­der­mine the very fab­ric of the Amer­i­can sys­tem by re­mov­ing the lines be­tween po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers.

“It opens a door to ba­nana repub­lic sta­tus, a door no­body may walk through at the mo­ment, but an open door nonethe­less,” said Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity’s Mr. Adams. “Only the Amer­i­can peo­ple can close that door, through elected civil­ian of­fi­cials in the Congress who speak out.”

More specif­i­cally, re­tired of­fi­cers fear that the nec­es­sary trust be­tween the pres­i­dent and mil­i­tary lead­ers could be bro­ken in a way that puts the na­tion in dan­ger. Some re­tired of­fi­cers, in the­ory, could be re­called into ser­vice in the event of a ma­jor global con­flict or an at­tack on the U.S.

Al­though such a sce­nario is un­likely, of­fi­cers who have pub­licly blasted Mr. Trump could find them­selves car­ry­ing out the com­man­der in chief’s or­ders.

“Legally speak­ing, re­tired flag of­fi­cers re­main sub­ject to re­call to ac­tive duty, so to use con­temp­tu­ous lan­guage about the pres­i­dent is trou­bling and may prove to be par­tic­u­larly so in a cri­sis,” Mr. Dunlap said. “One would hope that es­pe­cially these days re­tired of­fi­cers would be mod­els of how to dis­sent on is­sues in a forth­right yet re­spect­ful way.”

Fur­ther­more, some Amer­i­cans may not fully ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ence be­tween a re­tired of­fi­cer at­tack­ing the pres­i­dent ver­sus a man or woman on ac­tive duty.

“They look the same. They’re just wear­ing a neck­tie,” Mr. Spoehr said.

De­spite the dan­gers of the cur­rent dy­namic, ob­servers say, re­tired of­fi­cers should be free to ex­press their views and pol­icy ideas in a way that is re­spect­ful of the com­man­der in chief.

“Amer­i­cans want and, re­ally, need to be able to con­sider the views of those who served, along with oth­ers with ex­per­tise,” Mr. Dunlap said. “It should be the bright­ness of their ideas, not that of the stars they pre­vi­ously wore, that should carry the day.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Clinton awarded the Medal of Free­dom to Navy Adm. William J. Crowe in 2000. Adm. Crowe’s en­dorse­ment of Mr. Clinton in the 1992 elec­tion is seen as the be­gin­ning of a dan­ger­ous pat­tern.

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