It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. So many things are crowding in on our overflowing public square, there’s no way to comment on them all.
Even when we manage to comment, we’re usually dog-paddling behind the problem.
That is most certainly the case in the realm of commentary on military issues. “Reality on the ground” has changed to the point that our old, reflexive assumptions about convention and meaning are no longer serving us well. That would be bad enough without the strange, singular “anti-Trump/pro-Trump” dichotomy into which all our discourse lapses at the moment. But the dichotomy rules much of our shared public thinking space, and so the impact of the times is amplified.
It may be a disappointment to some, given the series of events recently, but I’m going to look only at two relevant situations here. One is General Mark Milley’s “apology” for being present when President Trump made his walk across Lafayette Square on 2 June. The other is the just-announced drawdown of U.S. troops in Germany.
Lafayette, sorry I was there
General Mark Milley, U.S. Army, is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was at the president’s press conference on 2 June after the previous weekend’s relentless onslaught of burning and looting in urban centers across America, including Washington, D.C. When President Trump ended the conference and took off in an unscripted foray across Lafayette Square, Milley accompanied him, along with other senior advisors including Defense Secretary Esper and Secretary of State Pompeo.
The media have crafted a narrative in which this action by Trump was a mere “photo op,” by implication cynical and cheap. There’s no question it was political, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that. We pay the president to be political. It’s his job. I’ve written before on why this was not merely a choreographed photo op, but an action meant to send a profound political and moral message.
It’s even clear that the media narrative taken in toto is false. Neither Trump nor anyone else had Lafayette Square cleared of protesters to facilitate Trump’s walk (which his cabinet didn’t even know about in advance).
So you’ll have to visit some other shop to find commentary that matches the media narrative. The media narrative occupies most minds inside the Beltway, however, and it forms the basis for objections later lodged by a few retired officers and officials against Trump’s decisions about military troops.
General Milley hasn’t voiced objections to the actual policy decisions. But in a video address to the graduating class at the National Defense University, published on 11 June, he said that in hindsight, he shouldn’t have made the walk with Trump or been present in front of St. John’s church.
Here’s the top military official in the U.S., the chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, saying it was a mistake for him to be seen walking with POTUS, across Lafayette square, for a photo op in front of a D.C. church. Here he explains why it was a mistake￼. pic.twitter.com/Ew7T5wS6LR
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) June 11, 2020
Milley’s premise is that he participated in political activity by doing that, and that he should not have done it.
But the premise doesn’t parse. I’m not here to pile on Milley; he has a difficult job sorting out some issues that are tough to think through. But if he shouldn’t have been with Trump in front of the church, he shouldn’t have been with Trump at the press conference.
He should never be with Trump in any forum in which Trump is discussing the inherently, always, and everywhere political topic of U.S. policy on security and the use of military force.
Yet generals and admirals have for many decades stood before the public with presidents who were discussing issues, making gestures, and even having photo ops in connection with this flagrantly political topic.
Indeed, during the Obama years, we became accustomed to seeing the generals and admirals sent to face the cameras on their own, without cover from the civilian leadership when it came to answering political questions like what the goal was, and why we were doing things. (When a pick-up NATO team started bombing Libya for no apparent reason in 2011, the Obama administration left it to an admiral some three to four levels deep in the Defense Department hierarchy to make the initial announcement and give the updates; see here also.)
To be sure, on 2 June 2020, the potential deployment venue was the U.S. homeland, and the politics were domestic as opposed to international. Milley’s sense is that in such a case, he ought to remove his uniformed body from the visual impressions being conveyed. I don’t think he’s foolish or Swampy for having this concern.
But I do think that suggesting there’s a cut-and-dried solution for it is a false proposition. There is not, in fact, a scripted, institutional, or conventional answer for when the message being sent by the president is “too domestically political” for senior military officers to be seen in the same Zip code with it.
We should certainly have learned that from the top brass’s willingness to be present for political posturing and photo ops on such freighted domestic-politics topics as same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and how we define “religious tolerance” – whether that last one relates to social issues or Islamist extremism. In each case, the politics are intense and divisive, and there are many Americans whose noses will be out of joint one way or another. Yet the senior officers stand before the cameras in uniform giving silent witness to their services’ obedience to the president’s policies.
It is far less politically radical for a president to affirm his commitment to basic law and order for the people’s sake. Probing and intimidating the people’s consciences on social issues is much more humanly intrusive than saying, “We’re not going to have arson and vandalism going unchecked in our streets.”
But such are the current times that the latter is what alarms a four-star general, as a political topic in which the military may be implicated. Of course, part of the concern is about military force being put on the table for use. But that’s only part of it. Does anyone doubt that Milley would be willing to stand next to a president who was vowing to use federal troops to escort black students to a school in Arkansas?
How jarring it is to realize that merely restoring public order is now cast as too “political” a priority for the uniformed military to appear to be affirmatively in sync with. But then, this framing comports perfectly with all the complaints about Trump and the riots, which invariably herd us to conclude that nothing that could be done is politically correct enough that we can accept its being done. The only righteous response is to give up on order and safety altogether.
No one is equal to such times, if they are grappled with on their own terms. Trump seeks to reset the terms, which is the only sensible thing to do. It’s also, inevitably, a political thing to do – just as the intellectual conditioning that got us to today has been political, and deliberate, from the beginning.
In these surreal times, behaving sensibly in taking political decisions is more than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can agree to signify obedience for. What tortured thinking rules us. A senior officer would rather go out of his way to appear to uphold an undefined, nonexistent “rule” than simply remain silent and let the president define the political context of policy – which is what we elect the president to do anyway.
It reminds me of a verse from the New Testament, in Paul’s second epistle to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:5, Paul speaks of a people who “hav[e] a form of godliness but deny its power.” So much of our leadership class now lives by forms, rather than invoking the compelling power of the justifications that underlie them. The forms, without their power, are growing brittle and impotent, leaving the society of men and women unprotected and increasingly preyed on.
These forms, which are not constitutional but conventional, and accreted only since the early 1930s, are not worth the people losing everything for. That’s why Trump got elected in 2016, and why the forms of politically correct “godliness” in today’s politics give us no aid or comfort whatsoever in the crises of 2020.
Some troops will do something
A few days ago, Trump tweeted that he plans to draw down the U.S. force in Germany by 9,500 troops. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize such an action, but as usual, it has also been noticeable that the editorial criticism is largely framed in terms of Trump being annoying and not getting along with our ally Germany.
There have been good-faith efforts to organize criticisms in a useful way. A Council on Foreign Relations fellow, Mira Rapp-Hooper, offered one with a generally center-left tone at the Washington Post, and Walter Russell Mead wrote a learned critique for the Wall Street Journal.
The problem with these efforts, which it isn’t my project here to impugn, is that they are defocused by dealing only in abstract or generic elements of the policy context. Rapp-Hooper concludes that we won’t save resources with the drawdown, but indeed will court higher costs in the long run, both financial and political. Mead gives us a perspective on the reasons for the drawdown, through the lens of “pro-Trump intellectuals: neo-mercantalists, realists and neo-nationalists” – which is good fun, but uncharacteristically misses the main thing we should all seek to know before pronouncing on this policy maneuver.
That, of course, is which 9,500 troops we’re talking about, and what the effect of their departure on our operational posture in Europe will be.
Equally important is what Trump plans to do with them, and what that says about our defense priorities and intentions.
You might think, with only some 34,000 U.S. troops in Germany, that it would be obvious how much it matters which force is to be removed. Our footprint is far lighter now than it used to be. There’s no redundancy, so what are we shifting elsewhere, and why? That hasn’t been disclosed.
The Russians will not fail to pursue those questions. Neither will the Chinese, for that matter.
It should therefore be interesting and informative for us that in the U.S., and in fact in the popular press in Europe, expert commentators are content to assume Trump has nothing in mind but declaring a new number (a cap of 25,000 troops in Germany), in service of some politically disjunctive and misguided goal.
I have yet to see Trump do that in any realm of policy. Defense may not be his natural milieu. But rapid tactical maneuver is. He’s always doing things for parsable reasons, wielding policy as a pragmatic tool and not a haiku.
But there’s a curious blindness to that in the pundit class. That functions as an advantage for Trump in many cases, and he doesn’t seem anxious to close the messaging gap on it. Most of our relevant pundits would probably assume their premise is good: Trump doesn’t see beyond the end of his nose, and his actions look weird to them because Trump doesn’t understand things or have cultivated ideas.
But he gets an awful lot done for someone so hobbled by a lack of vision or understanding. Countering the typical pundit’s assessment, Richard Grenell says that the troop drawdown has been discussed at length in the administration, and there’s a fully formed plan for it. Grenell has no history of talking through his hat on such matters. That tells me Trump is aware of the concerns raised by commentators and political critics (many of whom are Senate Republicans), and has a plan that conforms with his own priorities for those particular 9,500 troops.
Ron Johnson, at least, has the good sense to want to know which troops they are and what the plan is. He’s asking the right questions. I want to know myself. The times don’t make that easy or automatic, but perhaps at some point our opinion infrastructure will relearn some old lessons, and catch up.