Don’t drag the military into hyper-partisan political squabbles

Recently a reporter sent me a link to a new article by my friend Phil Carter entitled “Unpresidential Command” which references my “Coup of 2012” essay from several decades back (1992).  The reporter said that he was “not sure [Phil] got the point of [my] piece.”  I agree, plus I believe that now is not the time in our Nation’s history for either side of our extremely polarized political environment (or, for that matter, the media) to attempt to drag the military into their hyper-partisan political squabbles.

Here’s what all this is about: In his article Phil castigates the President for certain remarks he made at Newport News for the commissioning ceremony for America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78)Phil asserts that those comments amount to Trump “ordering service members to support the Republican agenda” something Phil, a political-appointee in the Obama administration, finds “terrifying.”  I like Phil a lot, and often admire his ideas and work, but – as great an American as he is – I find Phil’s take on this one to be way too heated and partisan.

It appears that Phil drew his inspiration from a Washington Post article in which the reporters editorialize that the President “injected a small dose of partisan politics into the ceremonial commissioning.”  They think that what they concede was only “a brief appeal” by Trump to an audience that included Navy personnel could somehow “be construed as an order, to the naval officers he commands.”

What was the “brief appeal” the reporters were talking about which frightens Phil?  After saying that there was a “need [for] Congress to do its job and pass the budget that provides for higher, stable, and predictable funding levels for our military needs that our fighting men and women deserve,” Trump added this aside:

“I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it.  (Applause.)  And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get healthcare.  (Applause.)

Does “I don’t mind getting a little hand” really sound like a military order to you?  Frankly, it doesn’t to me (and, allow me to say, that in my 34+ of military service I’ve received – and given – more than a few orders).  As for calling out Congress, let’s not forget that while still in office, President Obama “decried what he called “the reckless budget cuts of sequestration”” and, similar to Trump, called “on Congress to end the mandatory across the board budget cuts that were set into motion late in 2011” – all of which was told to a gathering of troops early this year at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall near the Pentagon.  (And in my opinion there was nothing wrong with President Obama doing so.)

Moreover, is it really “terrifying” in a representative democracy to observe that people, to include those serving their country in uniform, “can also call” their elected legislators about some political issue (even if the remark constitutes a “small dose” of partisanship)?

Furthermore, given the indirectness of the language used in Trump’s aside, are we to believe that Trump is someone who shrouds his “orders” (or much of anything else) in subtlety?  Trump being subtle?  Now that would be a news story!

More importantly in terms of Phil’s “ordering” allegation, as far as I know, not a single person actually serving in the military has said they thought Trump’s comments comprised an “order” from the Commander-in-Chief.  Does anyone believe that if, for example, the President – any President – was addressing the Nation on television, and asked everyone to contact their congressman about a piece of legislation he was advocating, that all the military viewers would lemming-like call their congressman because they thought they were “ordered” to do so?

Indeed, as one civilian told me, “Isn’t it kind of insulting to the military to even suggest that they would think that way?”  Sure it is.

If Trump had said to the troops “call your mother,” are we to suppose that everyone in the military would take that as an actual “order”?

Of course, as a matter of law, the comments hardly amount to the sort of directive that those in uniform are duty-bound to follow.  The Manual for Courts-Martial says in relevant part (¶14(c)(2)(a)(iv)) that an “order may not, without…a valid military purpose, interfere with private rights or personal affairs.” The individual decision to contact one’s congressman (or not) about a political matter is a rather quintessential example of a “private” right or “personal” affair which is beyond the authority of any order-giver to regulate.

This is especially so since Federal law makes it clear that communicating with Congress is a personal right, even for those in the armed forces.  It is, literally, unthinkable that any military judge – even if somehow he or she concluded Trump’s aside was, in fact, an “order” – would find it to be an enforceable one (and under military law, judges determine the lawfulness of orders).  The simple truth is that no one in the military is obliged to support the “agenda” of any political party, and I see nothing to indicate that those in uniform harbor any confusion about that fact.

In any event, don’t we often find “a small dose of partisan politics” in the way most presidents interact with the military, to include President Obama?  For example, in his last speech (December 16, 2016) before a sizable military audience, Obama told the troops that they had “the universal right to speak [their] minds and to protest against authority; to live in a society that’s open and free; that can criticize our president without retribution.”

Could this be “construed” by some as “a small dose of partisan politics” delivered directly to the troops that invites them to “protest” and “criticize” the incoming president of the opposing party?

Phil says that Trump’s comment “incites the assembled troops to discard centuries of U.S. military ethics and break long-standing military rules.”  What then are we to make of Obama’s exhortation? Given that Phil also said that Trump’s comments are “what leaders do in banana republics: Instruct the people with guns to join the political fray,” would he also say that Obama was doing much the same thing by seeming to encourage the “assembled troops” to “protest against authority” and to “criticize our president without retribution,” just a little more than a month prior to Trump’s inauguration?

Or was President Obama simply making a broad statement reminding all those watching and listening of what free people “can” do about political issues if they choose to?  If so, would urging people (not only in a live audience but also those watching or reading a speech across the country) to contact their elected representatives about a political matter really be all that much different?

Finally, I am genuinely flattered that Phil considered my “Coup of 2012” essay to be “brilliant,” but I wish he had mentioned it is a fictional piece.  Sure, as Phil says one of the points the essay sought to make was the military’s “entering the political fray can only be a distraction from defending the nation.”  But juxtaposing my essay with the larger context of Phil’s article distorts its meaning, which may explain the comment made by the reporter who forwarded me the link.

Let me clear the air.  As the “Coup” essay itself said a quarter-century ago, “It goes without saying (I hope) that the coup scenario above is purely a literary device intended to dramatize my concern over certain contemporary developments affecting the armed forces, and is emphatically not a prediction.”  Additionally, the fictional setting of the Coup of 2012 was one where the military became increasingly involved in the domestic arena as a result of being asked to solve a range of non-military issues here in the U.S.

Here’s the critical point: the key enablers of the military’s dominance in the Coup of 2012 scenario were weak political leaders, not strong, elected ones.  Love him or hate him, in many ways Trump is the antithesis of the weak political leaders my essay suggested.  Polls show that while most Americans disapprove of Trump, they nevertheless consider him a strong leader.

Furthermore, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Trump wants to inculcate the military into domestic activities; to the contrary, it seems quite evident from his Newport News speech that he wants the armed forces to remain focused on America’s external enemies, echoing in a real way the Supreme Court’s 1955 description of the “business” of the armed forces, that is, “to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.”

As a registered independent I carry no brief for President Trump, and I certainly recognize his many deficiencies.  And I do accept that we live in a hyper-partisan world, but I still can’t sign-on to inferences about military “coups” and “take-overs” however obliquely styled, or to the idea that today’s military is being (or is even liable to being) malevolently subverted by Trump or anyone else.

To me, such notions grossly underestimate the intelligence, character, and ethos of America’s armed forces, the institution in our society in which the public still has the most confidence.  That said, there is absolutely no question that America still needs to be vigilant about proper civil-military relations, and civilian authorities in the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government certainly have their job to do.  But even if Trump’s remarks did amount to “a small dose of partisan politics,” we ought to have something more telling than that before we start using over-heated words like “terrifying” to describe a situation involving those serving honorably in uniform.

Terrorism in the world is real and dangerous, and we mustn’t trivialize it into just another piece of partisan political rage (of any political party I might add).  Politicos may wish to viciously attack their opponents, but absent clear evidence – which the words here just don’t establish – any insinuations that “the people with guns” are being instructed “to join the political fray” is over-the-top.

There is certainly no shortage of reasons to legitimately and forcefully criticize Trump, but trying to undermine the American presidency by involving the military in this particular way in these very delicate times is not, in my view, what our Nation needs.

Let’s not exacerbate political divisions at a time when our country desperately needs unity, particularly in matters of national security.  Supporters of either party may wish to go after each other with hot tongs, but please don’t drag our military into it, especially since they are today putting their lives on the line for all of us in some of the most dangerous places on the planet.

As we like to say on Lawfire, check the facts and the arguments, and make your own judgement!



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