America needs to know exactly what General Milley said to his “Chinese counterpart”

In today’s Washington Post there were explosive allegations about the activities of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark MilleyThe Post reported that in a new book – Peril by two of its own (associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter, Robert Costa), General Milley is said to have made “secret calls” to his “Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army.”

That in and of it itself is not especially surprising as counterpart communications – even with leaders of hostile countries – can be productive in many ways, including avoiding deadly misunderstandings.  Milley, the Post suggests, was so unnerved by former President Trump and the events of January 6th that he wanted to assure the Chinese that the U.S. was not threatening them.

Astonishingly, however, the Post also says Milley “went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack.”  Here’s the mindboggling wording the Post says Milley used:

“General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” (Emphasis added)

The curious response of the Pentagon and the Administration

I am skeptical of the Post’s report simply because it’s incredible to me that any American military officer, let alone the Chairman, would, “in the event of a U.S. attack,” compromise its potential success by alerting the target…not to mention put our troops conducting the attack in obvious peril.

However, I also find it disconcerting that Milley has not personally and explicitly denied the claim that he would warn China in advance of a major U.S. military operation.  Instead, there have only been generalized assertions by Milley’s spokesperson and the Administration that Milley did nothing wrong.

In fact, when asked about the allegation that Milley pledged to warn the Chinese about a U.S. attack, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby refused to speak ‘to that hypothetical.”  The obvious question: if it isn’t true, why not say so?

Likewise, in a question to the White House Press Secretary, a reporter said:

A new book reports that near the end of the Trump presidency, Chairman Milley had two conversations with his Chinese counterpart, promising the countries would not go to war and that he would give an early warning if something were to happen.  In a statement just minutes ago, Chairman Milley did not dispute this account. (Emphasis added.)

Did the Press Secretary “dispute this account” as the Chairman’s own spokesperson did not?  No; instead, here’s what she replied:

Well, I saw the statement, of course, that the Department of Defense — or I should say the Joint Chiefs spokesperson just releat- [sic] minute — released minutes ago.  I’m not going to add more or speak to anonymous, unconfirmed reports about conversations with limited context from here. 

At least one anonymous source did address the “pledge” to “alert” the Chinese military in advance of a U.S. attack.  (There were other issues raised in the Post article about Milley’s alleged involvement with nuclear command and control, but I consider the alleged “pledge” the most serious matter.)  Here’s what Axios reports:

One source familiar with Milley’s conversations with his Chinese counterpart would only broadly characterize them as Milley saying something to the effect of: “We’ll both know if we’re going to war… there’s not gonna be some surprise attack and there’s no reason for you to do a pre-emptive strike.”

While not as egregious as the Post’s report about its own employees’ book, it doesn’t exactly exonerate Milley as no one can anticipate the precise circumstances that might necessitate America’s use of force.

Among other things, the U.S. has long embraced the international law concept of anticipatory self-defense.  Thus, it could be that in a given circumstance the U.S. may want – or need – to resort to it to achieve the military advantage of surprise when acting in self-defense.  In fact, “surprise” is a widely-accepted principal of war.

Regardless, Milley should not be suggesting to a dangerous adversary that the U.S. is foregoing a lawful response to some imminent threat that could arise.  In other words, it isn’t Milley’s call as to whether or not “there’s not gonna be some surprise.”  Ambiguity can be key to deterrence, and Milley ought to preserve it, not talk it away.

Is there more we need to know?

Based on my many years of military service I find the absence of an aggressive and explicit denial more than a little curious.  Is there something more about how Milley handled these calls that we should know about?

Milley’s judgment was questioned in an August 10th article by civil-military relations expert MacKubin Owens.  In discussing Milley’s supposed fears of former President Trump conducting some kind of “coup” after President Biden’s election, Owens observed:

Did General Milley have any evidence that Trump was planning a coup?  Not according to any published reports.  Indeed, General Milley’s actions themselves are more consistent with a coup, one along the lines of Seven Days in May.  According to reports, he told aides that a “retired military buddy” had called him on Election Night to say, “You represent the stability of this republic.” This is, at a minimum, praetorianism.

Lawfire®readers may recall that back in 2019, I wrote a cautionary post about some odd “myths” about warfighting that General Milley evidently believed (see here).  However, the current allegations are several orders of magnitude more serious.

The next step

So what to do?  The Wall Street Journal editorializes:

Gen. Milley should be asked to clarify, under oath, the context of his communications with China and nuclear launch procedure when he testifies before the Senate on Sept. 28. America’s military brass rightly has deconfliction channels open with adversaries when their forces are in proximity, but promising a tip off before the President ordered an attack would be an outrageous usurpation.

That is a good start, but not quite good enough. There needs to be a full-blown, bipartisan investigation that requires, at the onset, a recording of Milley’s conversations with the Chinese, along with a transcript.  Nothing less is acceptable. 

The American people need to make their own judgement about General Milley…and the accusing book’s authors.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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