Rehearsal for a coup

By TED G. CARPENTER
Posted 9/28/21

A new book, “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on the last weeks of the Trump administration is generating a firestorm of controversy, especially regarding the conduct of Gen. Mark …

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Rehearsal for a coup

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A new book, “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on the last weeks of the Trump administration is generating a firestorm of controversy, especially regarding the conduct of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One issue, Milley’s apparently secret communications with Gen. Li Zuocheng (the head of the People’s Liberation Army in China) to assure Beijing that U.S. military leaders would not let the president do anything rash, has received the most attention and adverse comment.

Another revelation — that Milley obtained an agreement from other top military commanders affirming that they would not execute orders from the White House unless Milley explicitly confirmed those orders — has not received the attention it deserves.

Both actions have major, troubling implications for civilian control of the military, but the latter allegation actually may be the more worrisome of the two.

A common feature of both reports is Milley’s utter certainty, bordering on paranoia, that Trump was not merely an unworthy but a truly dangerous president. That belief, in turn, supposedly justified a refusal by Milley and like‐minded members of the military hierarchy to respect Trump’s constitutional role as commander‐in‐chief.

Woodward and Costa describe the main action Milley took in response to that belief. He “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. …”

If the Woodward and Costa account is accurate, the Jan. 8 meeting should alarm every American who understands and values the importance of civilian control of the military.
America’s founders recognized how crucial such control was, and that is why they put an explicit provision in the Constitution making the elected president, not some puffed‐up field marshal or general, the head of the military.

Indeed, the founders were wary of the new republic even having a standing army. They had seen far too many historical examples of military figures who forcibly usurped power to be complacent about that danger.

The decision by Milley and his military colleagues to bypass the elected president sets a tremendously unhealthy precedent. Worse, they had no concrete evidence — merely suspicions on their part — that Trump planned to do anything rash, much less start a nuclear war.

American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher makes a pertinent point. “If things were as bad as Milley believed they were, he should have publicly threatened to resign, and then gone to Congress to spill the beans.”

Going around the civilian commander‐in‐chief and organizing a covert campaign of obstruction and insubordination is not an appropriate option.

We cannot have generals collectively plotting about what orders from their civilian superiors they will or will not obey. Such behavior amounts to a dress rehearsal for a military coup.

It is habit forming, and with this precedent the odds have greatly increased that another episode of covert defiance will take place in a future administration. The danger is especially acute if Milley (and perhaps others) are not punished, but instead excused or (worse) praised.

We must not make a mistake with the military brass that could prove fatal to the American republic.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute (cato.org) in Washington. This article was edited for length.

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