Tuesday dawned with an explosive exclusive from the Washington Post about allegations in the upcoming Bob Woodward book, Peril, that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saved the world from a Trump “right wing coup,” an attack on Iran, a total withdrawal from Afghanistan in January 2021, and a potential nuclear disaster arising from jitters between the U.S. and China.
Not only that, but the big save occurred on a timeline so abbreviated, you’d be hard-put to fit a really competitive World Series into it. All the serious action – averting the coup, the attack, the withdrawal, the nuclear disaster – took place in some unenumerated but brief span of days between 6 January and 20 January 2021.
To top it all off, this derring-do was mostly on the Q.T. There have been hints of it in earlier media reporting (faithfully hyperlinked in Tuesday’s mainstream-media rollout of the new theme), such as a report that on 8 January, Nancy Pelosi consulted with military officials – who would have included Milley – on how safe the “nuclear codes” were in Trump’s hands. But other than hints about what the principals involved were up to, there was no sign of the alleged crises themselves.
Sure, the media got busy instantly on 6 January 2021 interpreting the riot at the Capitol as an attempted coup, and insisting that Trump was behind it. So many Americans recognize that as a narrative without substance that it can hardly be called a known “crisis.” Most Americans think it was a riot, and think it was highly unseemly and colossally stupid, but not a danger to the Republic in and of itself. (A minority thinks the event was a threat to the federal government, and another minority thinks the real threat comes from the media and politicians framing it falsely as a coup or “insurrection,” and using that characterization to attack an entire political party and tens of millions of voters.)
As for the attack on Iran, the precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nuclear disaster involving China, there hasn’t been independent or collateral evidence of such looming crises. For threats of such newsworthy potential, they have gone for months without any of the validating exposure you’d expect from, well, evidence – or even just thematic leaks.
Instead, the alleged crises have remained unsuspected, or at any rate unarticulated, until now. As big a deal as they would be if they were real, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s sources seem to be the only ones in Washington who knew about them, or at least were willing to talk.
That alone, in a city that’s been leaking like a sieve for years, warrants caution in approaching this sudden Milley narrative.
The narrative is a doozy, depicting Milley as, among other things, a national hero for making some timely preemptive phone calls to China (if you have Trump Derangement Syndrome), or a traitor who gave aid and comfort to China (if you don’t). If Milley called China and assured his counterpart Li Zuocheng that he (Milley) would notify China should a crazed President Trump decide to do something dangerously stupid, then Milley needs to be brought up on charges.
That’s not what you do; it’s certainly not Milley’s job, even if things were in fact crazy in D.C. We have a whole National Security Council and three branches of government for a reason, the big one being to keep accountable policy mechanisms in place that don’t have single points of failure and information stovepipes. (When the mechanisms are functioning properly, they’re the good-faith reason for having the interagency processes – “the interagency” – alluded to so often in the impeachment hearings in the fall of 2019. Their purpose is not to pen the president in a corral; it’s to bring departmental expertise and equities together for his decision-making.)
If Milley didn’t trust Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, he could certainly go to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom the Woodward/Costa book apparently indicates he did keep running contact with. He could also make his concerns known to leaders in Congress, especially about matters like his supposed fear of a rogue attack on Iran, or some irresponsible blow-up with China.
If he really thought Trump was such a danger that he, Milley, needed to personally violate the chain of command six ways to Sunday, then notifying the NSC principals and Congress is exactly and exclusively what he should have done.
What he is alleged to have done instead is precisely what he should not have done: made cowboy promises to China, tried to hide the Pentagon’s real activities from the president (e.g., in Afghanistan and Syria), and encouraged his subordinates and other agencies to basically spy on whatever they could that was going on at the White House.
No one of sound mind can be gratified to think Milley did such things. For me, however, the real question is whether he did such things. I’m not convinced, at least not on all of it.
Echoes of cheap oppo
There are several reasons for this, one of which is that the reductionist, raw-nerve soundbites from the Woodward/Costa book come off so much like the “intelligence” in a Steele dossier memo, they might as well have come from the dossier. They’re like a screenwriter’s fantasy of what he knows in his heart the good guys are saying behind closed doors about his most-despised political figures. If Michael Douglas wasn’t born to utter the lines, Martin Sheen or Bradley Whitford certainly was.
Practitioners of intelligence craft recognized quickly about the Steele dossier that its perfectly baited, itch-scratching sentences from “sources” would mainly be intelligence about the sources’ knowledge of what the intel seeker was aching to hear. If someone really said those things, the seeker was being played. My own initial take was that no one really said them, because it was so absurdly obvious they were bait.
They served only one real-world purpose, and that was to advance a narrative favorable to those who commissioned the dossier: the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. The same can be said of the quotes from Peril strewn about the Post article. They are entirely unverifiable, they gratify a bloc of partisans to the point of giddiness, and they advance those partisans’ narrative in a way a more realistic tale would not. In the real world, people don’t break into keyword-blasting orations every third breath. They leave ellipses and spit out half-thoughts; they hedge their wording, consider their auditors and go for common understandings, economically expressed, rather than dramatic proclamations suitable for headlines.
At most, real people are good for one or two really choice nuggets, as soundbites go. Nobody is involved at a heroic level in everything, to the extent that the swath he cuts is heralded by juicy word banners.
Other reasons for skepticism include the internal inconsistencies of the Woodward/Costa narrative, as retailed by WaPo and other outlets.
The Post story can’t maintain the same perspective on presidents and their relations with generals for more than a few paragraphs, for example. The article’s major premise is that it’s a darn good thing if generals are stepping up to keep presidents from making their own decisions about national security matters. Every detail is laid out to make that case, as if Trump was mounting a coup simply by trying to implement his own perfectly lawful policy on the use of armed force. (The article has senior security officials complaining that they didn’t think Trump had read their National Defense Strategy – an attitude that seems to imply the final authority for the NDS is a gaggle of appointed subordinates rather than the president himself. Readers should not need my assurances that, according to the Constitution, it’s the president.)
Yet halfway through the article, we read this passage, presented as if we’re supposed to applaud Joe Biden for his independence from the generals: “On Afghanistan, the book examines how Biden’s experience as vice president shaped his approach to the withdrawal. Convinced that President Barack Obama had been manipulated by his own commanders, Biden vowed privately in 2009, ‘The military doesn’t f— around with me.’”
So which is it? Should the military f— around with presidents, or should it not? They’ll need to circle back to me, those Woodward and Costa sources, before I’ll buy off on what Milley really did and whether it was a good thing.
Nor do the story’s particulars hang together any better. We’re to believe that Milley was gravely alarmed about the prospect of a hasty pullout from Afghanistan in January 2021: so alarmed that he stonewalled and spied on the White House to prevent it. Yet in July and August 2021, he sat still for an equally hasty pullout, for which we had failed every bit as much to prepare the groundwork, with no hint that he spent that time nobly lying to the Biden Oval Office or trying to spy out and circumvent its intentions.
It is also claimed that Milley, worried about Trump and the nuclear codes, “called a secret meeting in his Pentagon office on January 8 to review the process for military action, including launching nuclear weapons. Speaking to senior military officials in charge of the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon’s war room, Milley instructed them not to take orders from anyone unless he was involved.”
As CNN reports, citing Woodward and Costa, Milley instructed them, “No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure.”
Then, says CNN, Milley “went around the room, looked each officer in the eye, and asked them to verbally confirm they understood.”
This immediately stood out to military officers and others who are aware that the Chairman is not in the chain of command for nuclear operations. Demanding that NMCC officers comply if he should insert himself into an execution sequence would be to step way out of bounds. I find it hard to believe Milley actually did this, and even harder to believe senior officers sat still for it.
Interestingly enough, a “clarification” of sorts was issued through Fox’s Jennifer Griffin after the original stories came out. She tweeted a version of the story altered just enough to backpedal on the depiction of Milley horse-collaring his officers to insist on a role for himself, and soften the image to Milley refreshing them on their actual obligations.
Pentagon officials: Gen Milley did not try to insert himself in the chain of command regarding the launch of nuclear weapons, but he made sure everyone knew what their roles were and what they weren’t. They reviewed lawful launch procedures following Pelosi phone call.
— Jennifer Griffin (@JenGriffinFNC) September 14, 2021
We can wonder if that revised impression will make it into the book Peril. In the meantime, the need for it does nothing to bolster the book’s credibility.
There’s a weird lack of awareness in the affect of the media coverage, as if the mainstream outlets genuinely don’t understand how off-putting the account of Milley’s purported “big save” is to ordinary Americans.
Many commentators have remarked on this. Even if we buy the tale of the crises faced and what Milley did about them, it can’t possibly have been the best solution to grab the Al Haig “I’m in charge here” brass ring, instead of sharing his concerns with the responsible civilian officials Milley could have taken the problems to through the front door. If someone had to call China about issues with POTUS, that call should not have come from anyone less senior than the National Security Adviser – and SECSTATE or VPOTUS would have been better.
Another reason to be skeptical about the Milley narrative is that Trump says it isn’t true. Specifically, Trump says Milley didn’t do what the Post article, citing Peril, alleges. It would be hard to hide it from the White House if Milley did do it, and Trump has no stake in letting a false narrative stand on that head.
That point raises another one, which I will treat only briefly for now. The events of Milley’s excellent adventure would have occurred before Biden’s inauguration, which means any official monitoring of federal departments’ communications – including calls by Milley to China – was done under the Trump administration. We don’t know from here and now the extent to which the bureaucracy in those last few weeks was still properly responsive to the duly constituted authorities; i.e., the Trump administration, as opposed to self-appointed keepers of the “deep state’s” prerogatives. But it’s not impossible that the Trump White House did have a good idea what much of the government was engaged in, including Milley and others in the Pentagon.
Trump’s statement that Milley did not do what is alleged between 6 and 20 January may be a well-founded one. I wouldn’t count that out. As for the larger implications of such knowledge among Trump and (probably) a small group of advisers, that’s for another article.
This one would become impossibly long if I discussed all the problems with the Milley tale. I will close it out instead with a final point that keeps leaping out at me, but I suspect is being overlooked by many observers who are understandably absorbed in the ethical problem of Milley’s alleged behavior (like our old friend Alexander Vindman).
If this is true GEN Milley must resign. He usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. You can’t simply walk away from that. #dotherightthingintherightway https://t.co/izsMMCFPrz
— Alexander S. Vindman (@AVindman) September 14, 2021
Afghanistan as territory
It’s this. From 2001 until today, there has been nothing as remarkable, and frankly ill-accounted for, as America’s tenacity in keeping a decisive footprint in Afghanistan. By decisive, I don’t mean our presence was procuring a decisive end-state. I mean our continued presence, while it never made real progress toward a “better peace,” was just enough to weight the scale toward stasis in Afghanistan – for little apparent strategic or pragmatic benefit to us – for almost exactly 20 years. (We invaded Afghanistan on 7 October 2001.)
Then, suddenly, in the summer of 2021, it seemed to be time to bug out – so quickly and thoroughly that we left billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry and military equipment behind, and abandoned Bagram air base to whoever is the best equipped to take over and operate it (and that isn’t either the Afghan National Army or the Taliban). Not to mention, of course, the appalling human cost of leaving Americans and Afghan allies behind.
President Biden speaks now, as he did in councils with Obama and the generals in 2009, of seeing Afghanistan solely as a potential base for terrorist enterprises, and of maintaining a capability to hunt terror cells in the country without trying to pacify territory there. This is his “over the horizon” patter, and in 2021 he’s invoking it as the only real national security obligation we have vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In mid-2009, he made the case for keeping just enough of a footprint in-country to enable that line of operations.
In September 2021, he’s now all for doing it from neighboring countries. But that represents a really rapid shift, by the narrative of the “national security state.” If the Milley tale is to be believed, we went from desperately needing to keep a light-footprint contingent in Afghanistan – the urgent premise in January 2021, which Trump was on the wrong side of – to being fine without a footprint inside the country by July 2021, as long as we can hunt terrorists from across someone’s border.
If it’s fine by July 2021 to plink terrorists from outside Afghanistan, there’s no argument that that could not have been foreseen, by Trump and his officials, in January – or December 2020, or November. Apparently it would have been Trump, not Milley, who had the percipient foresight – if Biden is on the right course now.
Rather than the U.S. truly needing to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan past January 2021, it’s as if we were holding Afghanistan for someone else’s purposes for nearly 20 years, but now no longer need to do so.
That, at least, is the likeliest story thread you’d reconstruct if you went by the arguments, including the Milley tale, offered by the media and “national security state” stalwarts.
What changed between January and July 2021? The conundrum here can’t be solved by an abstract hand-wave at the “military-industrial complex.” This isn’t about money or defense contracts. It looks like a territorial imperative – for someone. It’s just not the United States.