Five recommendations for America’s military at this sensitive time

Most Americans were rightly appalled by the almost unimaginable events in Washington last week.  As political leaders sort out larger issues of accountability, let’s unpack some suggestions for America’s military at this sensitive time.  Here are five:

Back in September, former U.S. National Security Advisor LTG (ret) H.R. McMaster put it this way:

“I think what’s really clear for the American people to understand is the military will have no role in a transition,” the retired army general told NBC’s Meet the Press.

“In fact, even talking about it, I think, is irresponsible.  And that’s maybe why, if you detect some reticence on the part of senior military leaders or those in the Pentagon to talk about it, it’s because it shouldn’t even be a topic for discussion.”

This remains the correct perspective, and one essentially reinforced recently by an op-ed by all ten living former secretaries of defense.

Quelling civil disorders and ensuring the security of the Capitol is a different issue, and there are times when active duty troops are needed to help control a violent situation. However, at this sensitive moment, I believe it would be wise to be sure to exhaust every civilian option before considering sending in federal troops.

Of course, civilian law enforcement resources need to be properly organized and employed.  But those resources, when utilized effectively, are formidable: the District of Columbia has six civilian law enforcement agencies staffed with thousands of officers.  In fact, when you look at cities with 250,000 or more people, D.C. has the highest rate of police per resident.  Additionally, there are mutual aid agreements with other police forces—and there are 800,000 sworn police officers in the United States.

The National Guard is another option, and thousands have now been mobilized from a number of U.S. States.  If possible, however, it would best if they took a behind-the-scenes supporting role instead of becoming the front-facing organization in a major civilian law enforcement effort.

Still, with respect to the nation’s Capital, especially considering the Inauguration and other near-term transitional government functions, no expense or effort can be spared in ensuring the necessary resources are available for security.

  • Double down on vigilance and readiness.

There are plenty of hostile state and non-state actors who may perceive this moment as an opportunity to damage the U.S. in any number of ways.  The op-ed by the former secretaries of defense made this point:

Transitions, which all of us have experienced, are a crucial part of the successful transfer of power. They often occur at times of international uncertainty about U.S. national security policy and posture. They can be a moment when the nation is vulnerable to actions by adversaries seeking to take advantage of the situation.

I’d bet Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others are scheming and strategizing right now about how they can exploit the events. Countering those machinations is a whole-of-government process, but the armed force has to be especially vigilant and ready for any eventuality in the military dimension.

Part of readiness is the overt display of it.  Accordingly, I think it was wise for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to conduct its first Bomber Task Force mission of 2021 on January 8th.  As CENTCOM’s announcement said, the purpose of the mission was to “demonstrate the U.S. military’s continuing commitment to regional security and deterrence to aggression.”

CENTCOM explained that two B-52s “flew a 36-hour, non-stop mission from the 5th Bomb Wing’s home at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to the Arabian Gulf and back to send a clear deterrent message by displaying the ability to deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.”

Our adversaries need to be on notice that the U.S. military is standing watch and remains fully prepared to defend America, its allies, and its interests

  • Go over-the-top in ensuring the new national security leadership team is welcomed, and help them to be ready to succeed from day one.

This means complete and enthusiastic cooperation during the transition.  The former Secretaries of Defense said:

[P]articularly at a time when U.S. forces are engaged in active operations around the world, it is all the more imperative that the transition at the Defense Department be carried out fully, cooperatively and transparently.

Moreover, it also means being genuinely open to the ideas of the new administration.  It doesn’t mean every idea is necessarily a good one—civilian leaders need the candid advice of the uniformed community, especially now—but timing does matter.  Thus, for the immediate future it would be much better for the military to stick to a listening mode whenever possible as the representatives of a new administration explain their agenda.

Yes, the time will come for the inevitable policy debates. But that time isn’t now.

People need to settle into new positions and have an opportunity to digest the inside view of today’s defense dynamics.  Fortunately, many of the new officials come into government with great experience. Still, the military’s mission in this respect remains to help the new leadership team to be immediately successful in the quintessentially nonpartisan task of ensuring the nation’s defense.

  • Recognize that America’s reputation has been damaged around the globe, but don’t become a prisoner of that fact.

Though there are a variety of opinions about the impact, I think the most accurate one is by Sir John Scarlett, the former Chief of Britain’s MI6, who told the Cipher Brief:

 “People outside the US, friends or otherwise, who know and understand US culture, politics and the Constitution, will have confidence in the integrity and discipline of the Government and the forces of law and order to control this situation.  They will keep it in perspective.  But the majority outside will not understand.  Many will question the stability of US society.  Everyone is watching, including our opponents.  This is the worry.” 

Scarlett’s assessment is not, fortunately, entirely negative; but it does clearly illustrate that there is much work to do.  In embarking upon that effort, it may be helpful to keep in mind the assessment made by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2010 shortly after WikiLeaks revealed a shocking trove of classified U.S. government documents:

The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.  Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us.  We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

The current situation is different and more serious than even the WikiLeaks release, but I suspect the same reality will nevertheless apply today.

That doesn’t mean these events will be forgotten.  Recall what General David Petraeus said in 2010 about another national disgrace:

“Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non biodegradable. They don’t go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick

There is no getting around the fact that America’s enemies will continue to beat us with the “stick” of last week’s events.  While there will be, as Sir Scarlett says, many friends of the U.S. who will put the events in perspective, a majority will need to be convinced of the vitality and efficacy of our democracy.

The effort to repair America’s image abroad will involve many participants and a variety of factors, including time and healing at home.  Fortunately, America’s institutions remain strong.  Mihir Sharma, an Indian economist, makes that point in a new op-ed (World Shouldn’t Laugh at U.S. Too Soon) on  According to Sharma, “[before gloating at America’s democratic stumbles, other countries should recognize how much stronger its institutions are than their own.”

The military is one of America’s strongest institutions, and its contribution to rehabilitating America’s reputation must include steady professionalism at every level, particularly with our allies and partners.  Actions, not words, will ultimately shape a better narrative than the one the world saw last week.

At the same time, however, America’s military must not let the events–or the world’s reaction to them—dissuade or diminish it from doing what it does better than any military on the planet: defend not just the U.S., but also a quarter of humanity around the globe.

The stain of last Wednesday will never go away, but it can fade with the right kind actions by the military, the rest of government, private entities, and individual Americans.  We need to demonstrate what a terrific nation the U.S. really is.  This is not a quick fix; indeed, it’s a generational project.

  • Internalize the truth of President-elect Biden’s observation

In the aftermath of the events in Washington, the President-elect wisely observed: Through war and strife, America’s endured much and we will endure here and we will prevail again, and we’ll prevail now.  He’s absolutely right.  As awful as last week was, America has endured and prospered despite terrible events.

History can give context.  Last week, for example, National Geographic produced a story recounting the U.S. Capitol’s turbulent history of bombings, assassination attempts, and violence.”  Lawfire® readers of a certain age may also remember the chaos and violence of the 1970s.  In 2005 Time reported:

It may be hard to recall now, but there was a time when most Americans were decidedly more blasé about bombing attacks. This was during the 1970s, when protest bombings in America were commonplace, especially in hard-hit cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.  Nearly a dozen radical underground groups, dimly remembered outfits such as the Weather Underground, the New World Liberation Front and the Symbionese Liberation Army, set off hundreds of bombs during that tumultuous decade.

How many bombings?  Time says, “In a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day.”  Yet the Republic, as the President-elect might say, endured and prevailed.

Indeed, Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria had an interesting column on Sunday (The good news hidden within one of America’s darkest weeks) in which he reflected upon that period of chaos.  He notes that “despite growing up far away from the United States,” he followed the turmoil here with “intense interest.”  Zakaria adds:

Yet despite it all, I still felt a deep attraction to America. The chaos and disruption were evidence of an open society in the midst of great change, a place that showcased all the anger and turmoil that come with wrenching dislocations and transformations. But these things were also the sign of a country airing its problems and facing its challenges; a place that, having weathered the storm, would find new resilience, energy and strength. I believe that today as well.

Americans are strong and resilient people, as is their military.  Going forward, the armed forces can set the example as to how to deal with this challenge: don’t engage in hand-wringing but develop a plan–and get to work executing it

The recent response to the pandemic illustrates what the military can–and, really, must–do in times of crisis because unlike so many entities, the military does not have the option of shutting down.  Consequently, it reorganized its training and operations, took difficult steps to do what it could ensure safety, took reasoned risks, and carried on.

True, the effort did not achieve perfection – 15 military members tragically lost their lives to the disease – but given that there are more than 2 million active and reserves members of the armed forces, the military’s performance has been remarkable.

In short, it really doesn’t help to dwell upon the apocalyptic rhetoric of despair, as many seem to be doing today.  Instead, consider the excellent essay by Rutgers Dean of Faculty Jacqueline S. Mattis just published in The Conversation (5 strategies for cultivating hope this year).  Dean Mattis provides some practical, concrete steps individuals—in or out of the military–can take to cultivate hope.

Allow me to close by repeating a bit from a prior post: one of Britain’s greatest generals of World War II, Sir Archibald Wavell, was fond of recalling the Roman general Caius Terentius Varro, one of few to survive the catastrophic defeat at Cannae at the hands of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal.  The threat to the Roman republic at that moment was truly existential.

Most Romans were paralyzed with fear. But Varro “rallied all the remaining forces and returned to Rome to defend the city.”  Wavell said:

This is the first and true function of a leader: never to think the battle or cause is lost. The ancient Romans put up a statue to the general who saved them in one of Rome’s darkest hours, with this inscription: “Because he did not despair of the Republic.”

Let’s not despair of our Republic!

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