When the Generals Become Democracy’s Guardians

U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith

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Military officers have checked some of the president’s uglier populist impulses. But what does that mean for liberal values?

In many democratic societies, the military officer corps is, along with the church, among the most reflexively conservative institutions. In the United States, that conservatism has led some prominent general officers to take on a new role: the defenders of liberalism and its core values.

In recent weeks, whether it has been Jim Mattis on torture or Bill McRaven on press freedoms, some of the most prominent retired officers in America—men with impeccable combat credentials—have pushed back on some of the uglier populist impulses of the new Trump administration.

As encouraging as that has been, it makes me worry about what that means for both liberal values and the role of the military officer corps in American society. For some answers, it’s worth taking a look at another country in which the senior ranks of the military officer corps have been thrust into a role as the vanguard of liberalism: Israel.

I spent more time in Israel than any other country during my time serving as the head of the Pentagon’s Middle East policy shop—over a dozen visits in less than two years. My last visit immediately followed the guilty verdict against Elor Azaria. Azaria was a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces who, after other soldiers had disarmed a Palestinian terrorist, executed that Palestinian as he lay on the ground incapacitated. A military court duly found Azaria guilty of manslaughter.  

One of the reasons the Azaria case captivated Israel was because, since almost all young Israelis serve in the IDF, each Israeli parent could imagine his or her own son or daughter in the same situation in which Azaria found himself: in the West Bank, adrenaline rushing after surviving an attack, and making a bad decision that would have far-reaching consequences. It’s worth noting that the Azaria incident took place at the same time in which a new wave of terror was sweeping through Israel and the territories and had heightened the fears of many Israelis. “He’s everyone’s boy,” Azaria’s defenders cried.

No, no he is not, firmly replied the IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. “An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child.’ He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

Eisenkot’s words, and the verdict itself, put the IDF’s senior officers in Tel Aviv at direct odds with the populist rightwing government in Jerusalem. Extreme rightwing protesters chanted that Eisenkot would join his assassinated predecessor and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin if he kept going, and some of prime minister’s political allies made a point of showing up at Azaria’s trial and complaining about the “leftists” in the IDF leadership and the security services.   

The stress on the IDF as an institution showed, and in my meetings with Israeli counterparts over the next several days, I made a point to mention how much I appreciated not only their strategic leadership but their moral leadership.

Many Americans are now expecting that same kind of moral leadership from their own men and women in uniform—especially since Trump has so many retired generals among his closest advisors, using the stars on their shoulders to generate support for his policies. And for the moment, the uniformed officer corps still carries with it the moral authority to tilt the public debate. My own dad is the kind of Trump supporter who thinks the president is being reasonable when he talks about getting tough with terrorists. But as soon as someone like Jim Mattis weighs in against torture, my dad’s views change accordingly because of the respect he has for America’s military leadership.

Military officers are fooling themselves if they imagine there is not a cost to becoming a political actors.

In time, though, I worry military leaders can lose some of that moral authority. And to a degree, Americans will all be responsible when they do: Over the past several decades, retired general officers have grown more political, most notably taking on more prominent roles as surrogates for political campaigns of both parties, and all of us partisans have been complicit in that.  

Every four years, the Democratic and Republican parties compete to see who can amass the longest list of retired general officers supporting their presidential candidate. Everyone remembers retired Army lieutenant general Mike Flynn’s inflammatory rhetoric at the Republican National Convention, but retired Marine general John Allen gave a highly partisan speech of his own a week later at the Democratic National Convention.

The relationship between Israeli prime ministers and their principal military advisers is always a little tense because Israeli generals have often gone into elected politics upon leaving office: A prominent Israeli general one day, giving his best military advice to the prime minister, could be running for office against the prime minister the next—and talking publicly about what an idiot the prime minister was when he was working for him. That’s not a recipe for healthy civilian-military relations.

The interjection of military officers—active duty or retired—into the American political discourse carries similar risk.   

Steve Bannon, Newt Gingrich, and others have been whispering into the ear of the president and others about the perils of the supposed “deep state:” that collection of bureaucrats and officers supposedly acting under the influence of us former Obama administration officials to thwart the agenda of the president.

Any talk of an actual deep state in America is absurd—and exasperates scholars of Turkey, in particular. As Zeynep Tufekci points out, permanent bureaucracies pushing back against an executive is a relatively common phenomenon in liberal democracies (it was the United Kingdom that gave us the sitcom Yes, Minister), and it happened in the Obama administration as well. American administrations traditionally tame the bureaucracies by appointing officials in the departments and agencies to ensure the president’s agenda is executed—something this administration has been slow to do.

Related: Are Leakers Defending Democracy or Corroding It?

But the narrative of an American deep state is useful if your aim is not to bend the bureaucracy to the will of the elected president but to destroy the bureaucracy—or “administrative state,” to borrow Bannon’s term—itself. That might also explain why so many State Department career foreign-service officers have been retired out of assistant secretary-level positions, with no one expected to take their places in the near term.

Right now, it’s the diplomats and spies in the cross-hairs of the Trump administration. They are the ones seen as the most disloyal to the Trump agenda. But there’s no reason why that skepticism cannot also someday extend to the general officer corps—which to be fair is already bloated and presents a ripe target for any budget hawks out there. So military officers are fooling themselves if they imagine there is not a cost to becoming a political actors and thereby politicizing their former institutions.

There is also a cost, of course, to not speaking out. There is a cost to standing by and watching the president assault the media and the judiciary when coverage and decisions do not go his way. There is a cost to watching the president and his allies stoke the worst fears and hatreds directed at the most vulnerable among us—the poor, the refugees, the religious minorities—and not speaking out in their defense.

The devil, Eliot Cohen acidly wrote in these pages, collects on an installment plan. And the liberal values that America’s founding fathers harvested from the Enlightenment and wrote into its national DNA will not disappear in a day but rather one executive order—or tweet —at a time. For that not to happen, Americans will need men and women to stand up for them, and will all need to accept the cost for them doing so.

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