Media Revelations Suggest the US Civilian Control of the Military Is Increasingly Shaky

By James W. Carden* – Globetrotter, Independent Media Institute

Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle of the US Constitution yet has been flouted again and again.

Washington’s quasi-official court stenographer, Bob Woodward, has just published another “insider” DC account, which he co-authored with the journalist and television fixture Robert Costa, titled Peril. In it, Woodward  and Costa reveal that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Army four-star general Mark Milley, made several calls to his Chinese counterpart in the closing days of the Trump administration in order to reassure him that should the president launch a military attack on China, he, Milley, would let the Chinese know ahead of time.

“If we’re going to attack,” Milley told Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, “I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”

The revelation has captured Washington’s notoriously short attention span, and, as far as JCS Chairman go, Milley has now gained a level of national notoriety not seen since general Colin Powell held the position during the first Gulf War some 30 years ago.

Throughout his tenure, Milley’s focus hasn’t been so much on winning military battles, but on winning the hearts and minds of the media and liberal Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. His is a career built not on any first-hand combat experience but on his experience as a seasoned bureaucratic infighter, climbing the slippery yet ultimately very lucrative rungs of Washington’s military-media-think tank-defense industry complex. Cleverly, and no doubt with an eye toward preventing any stigma from attaching to his service within the Trump administration which might cloud his future earnings potential, Milley has become an outspoken defender of any and every cultural fad that has captured the canine-like attention span of the US Congress, including critical race theory.

In his years as JCS chairman under Trump, Milley seems to have crafted a kind of self-anointed role for himself, not so much as the elected commander-in-chief’s principal military adviser (as enshrined in the Goldwater-Nichols statute of 1986) but as a back-channel to the sitting president’s political enemies such as Pelosi and, as Woodward and Costa just revealed, to the country’s principal geopolitical rival in Asia. Yet, as Quincy Institute president Andrew Bacevich recently pointed out, “Providing adversaries with advance notice of U.S. military actions does not number among the prescribed duties of the chairman of the joint chiefs. Arguably, the Woodward-Costa allegations, if accurately reported, qualify as treasonous.”

This is hardly the first time we have seen military personnel, ostensibly subordinate to the civilian commander-in-chief, act in such a fashion. A neoconservative Army lieutenant colonel who was detailed to the national security council was, after all, largely responsible for Trump’s first impeachment. The disgruntled Ukrainian-American Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman found Trump’s conversation with the sitting Ukrainian president not to his liking and shared his grievances with the congressional opponents of the president he ostensibly served. Vindman testified that he believed Trump’s intended policy was “inconsistent with consensus views of the interagency.”  Yet the Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decisions (see United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. for example) give the elected civilian president wide statutory authority in the conduct of foreign affairs — whatever Washington’s bureaucratic caste tells itself. Ironically, the very same Vindman just called for Milley’s resignation.

Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle of the US Constitution yet has been flouted again and again, particularly in recent years as military leaders and their congressional supporters have scrambled to save face over one lost war after another. Woodward and Costa’s reporting ought to occasion both a congressional investigation of military insubordination as well as a serious re-thinking of having military personnel in policy positions which ought to be under the purview of the country’s elected civilian leadership.

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* James W. Carden is a writing fellow at Globetrotter and a former adviser to the U.S. State Department. Previously, he was a contributing writer on foreign affairs at the Nation, and his work has also appeared in the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft, the American Conservative, Asia Times, and more.