observations and opinion
JUST WHAT, EXACTLY, ARE THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF DOING?
In the last few days, some unprecedented things have occurred in the United States. Among them, overtly political statements from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The events in Charlottesville, Virginia did not affect the military. They were not the fault of members of the military, to our knowledge. When the President spoke out repeatedly in defence of the neo-Nazi instigators, he did not discuss the military or implicate them in his comments.
At no time did anyone accuse the Navy, Army, Air Force or Marines of operating according to racist tenets. Further, no one even asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff what they thought about Trump’s comments.
And yet, the Chiefs have commented – vibrantly, powerfully, pointedly, in opposition to the President’s words. Their tweets are below. But their messages about tolerance and diversity, worthy as they are, are almost less important than the fact that the Chiefs said anything at all.
In a democracy, it is not appropriate for the military to take overtly political positions. The military takes orders from the democratically elected civilian government. Even in a government so heavily dominated by ex-military (the White House Chief of State, the Secretary of Defence, the National Security Advisor are all generals).
For the Joint Chiefs of Staff to orchestrate public statements which can only be read as a rebuke of the Commander-in-Chief is unprecedented in American history. It is unsettling, from a constitutional standpoint. Had it occurred during the Obama Administration, people would have been very upset indeed.
Yet in August 2017, messages from the Joint Chiefs about a political issue – messages which essentially say “we do not support the President” or at least “we disagree with the Commander-in-Chief” are not unsettling. They are deeply reassuring.
Trump has programatically used his office for personal gain: his vacations all require huge payments by the Treasury to Trump resorts; the rent he charged the Secret Service in Trump Tower was so steep, they moved out; he even shamelessly plugged his own winery at the press conference where he spoke about the Charlottesville events.
Why would the military be exempt from Trump’s profiteering? It wouldn’t. Some saw his bellicose barking at North Korea as a distraction exercise from previous troubles. Only the most dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter trusts the President not to abuse his military authority for personal or political gain.
Which takes us to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their extraordinary public statements of the last few days. Distancing themselves from the President – for no necessary military purpose – was a purely political act. It was a message to Americans. But what did it say? “Racism is bad”? Sure, but didn’t we know that already? Indeed, the military has for years been a chief engine of affirmative action and minority advancement. Nobody thinks the service has a serious racism problem (sexism, sure, but that’s a different conversation).
No, the Joint Chiefs were saying something else. They were saying “We are not with him.”
They were saying “You can trust us.”
Personally, I am glad to see it. But, there are concerns.
The precepts of civilian rule and military accountability to the democratically elected executive are pretty clear in U.S. tradition and law. That the heads of the services have orchestrated a communications campaign to distinguish themselves from the Commander-in-Chief, does not seem consistent with those traditions. It is, as Trump would say, “unpresidented.”
Those who oppose Trump (most of the U.S. population) may be comforted by that. The whole world itself may sleep better knowing that the adults who actually manage the largest military force in the world, have expressed their distaste for and distance from, the President of the United States. I feel reassured by the idea that decent men stand between Trump and the nuclear football (if they do).
But in the context of the U.S. Constitution and of civilian authority, this seems a slightly disquieting moment. If you asked me, “who do you trust with the U.S. military?” it would most certainly be “the Joint Chiefs” and NOT the President. But nobody elected the Joint Chiefs. They may be the more trustworthy authority, but they aren’t the authority.
It seems that the day has come when the leaders of the U.S. military have had to make a declaration of loyalty to the Constitution and the people. And in so doing, make a declaration of potential disloyalty to the Commander-in-Chief.
This has become necessary because many doubt the fitness of the President. Some doubt his mental capacity. And everyone doubts the willingness of Congress to remove Trump from office (so far). Everyone hopes Mueller will fix this for them, one way or the other. But if Mueller does not find evidence to incriminate Trump so as to merit impeachment, then what?
Apparently, we have to trust the generals and admirals with the fate of America (and the world). The fact that people are okay with that – the fact that people didn’t even blink at it – seems deserving of a little more conversation.