The Real Problem With 'Politicizing the Military'
The Constitution says nothing of civilian control of the military or its expected political neutrality. How we protect those traditions needs more attention than ever.
If President Donald Trump has done nothing else in his troubled, turbulent tenure, he has sensitized us anew to concerns about the politicization of the military — along with the diplomatic corps, the intelligence community, and the law enforcement community. As much as the subject demands our attention, it has largely escaped the level of scrutiny and understanding it deserves. Few among us understand the subject, much less why it is important. Trying to define it is even harder. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in a 1964 opinion of pornography, “I know it when I see it,” but that standard seems obscenely inadequate with regard to this important democratic precept.
Here’s a question for starters: Does the U.S. military belong to the president? The answer is unconditionally no. Ours being a system of governance based on popular sovereignty — rule of, by, and for the people — the military, especially a professional, full-time, paid one, belongs to the people it is charged with representing.
Can the president then do whatever he wants with the military? The answer is again no, but conditionally so. Our chosen form of government, representative democracy, is built of constitutionally empowered, co-equal institutions charged with checking and balancing one another.
Rumor has it, yet to be confirmed, that one of these reputedly co-equal institutions is called Congress. And who can forget John Adams’s timeless line from the stage play and movie 1776: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!” It is universally recognized that militaries are accorded license to possess and employ the most lethal, destructive instruments of violence known to humanity. Where popular sovereignty is a cardinal precept, but representative democracy is the chosen form of government, the power of the people resides in the authority of their representatives — Congress — who in turn are expected to exercise that authority assertively to control the military. Where that authority isn’t exercised, the president as the constitutionally designated commander in chief is left to do pretty much what he wants with the military.
Trump has brought these commonly neglected ideas into the forefront of the public consciousness, especially of late. The lengths and limits of the president’s authority as commander in chief, or what we tend to think of as the time-honored democratic precept of civilian control of the military, and the associated lengths and limits of the military’s obligations to comply with his authority, have been tested time and again in this administration.
Most of us have come to accept civilian control and the normative antipode of politicization — political neutrality — as both necessary and desirable in democracy if it is to survive and thrive. Neither of these fundamental precepts is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution – or for that matter in statute. Rather, they have come to be embraced and accepted as matters of practice over time.
Civilian control can exist in any form of government, but democracy can’t operate as it should without duly elected and appointed civilian authorities — executive and legislative — calling the military shots, issuing direction, providing oversight, and exercising final decision-making authority. But civilian control is a minimalist condition, the floor of relations among the military, its civilian masters, and society. Its intrinsic value lies in giving authority and legitimacy to what the military does (presumably on behalf of the country) and in restraining and justifying military action.
The ceiling of the civil-military relationship — the ideal — is what might best be referred to as civilian supremacy, where there are layers of public oversight of legislative oversight of executive oversight of a willingly accountable, self-policing military. But civilian supremacy is an illusory ideal, considering our persistent public apathy and congressional inertia, thereby leaving civilian control in the hands of the commander in chief and his minions.
When civilian control is regularly tested to its limits, and even abused, the military is left to choose between loyalty and duty, dissent and disobedience, silence and voice. This is where politicization and political neutrality come most clearly into play.
There first is the question of meaning. Politicization can’t help but mean different things to different people. But what level of political engagement takes us into the realm of politicization: being merely influenced by politics, or actively biased by, associated with, or actually involved in politics? And what is the object of such engagement: Is it partisan activities or affiliations, or policy positions and preferences, or endorsing politicians, or seeking public office itself? Finally, what are the attendant effects that warrant our utmost concern: those that undermine the objective, equitable treatment of others; or run counter to the provisions of the Constitution; or impede or obstruct democratic governance; or betray professional values and principles?
Even if we could converge on a universally acceptable definition of politicization, things still get complicated. For starters, there are those who politicize (civilian politicians, the media, even the military itself) and those who, willingly or unwilling, are politicized (the military). The question this raises is whom politicization applies to: the president? the Cabinet? sub-Cabinet officials? Congress? all members of the military (enlisted and commissioned? uniformed and non-uniformed)? all officers, or just senior officers? active duty or retired?
Then there is the question of how much of a distinction we should make between politics and policy. Politics involves the use of individual and group power for partisan advantage in seeking and holding office and controlling government’s agenda. That’s where tradition dictates that the military doesn’t belong and shouldn’t be expected to belong. Policy is something else altogether; it is where one stands on issues of the day. That’s where the military deserves to be heard in the interest of healthy public discourse, and arguably its leaders are obligated to give civilian leaders their best strategic advice.
So, too, is there a distinction to be made between high politics and low politics. High politics is about the conduct of statecraft. Low politics is the partisanship, rhetoric, and posturing that serves the self-interest of office-seekers/-holders and their constituencies. If an ideal state of civil-military relations is one calling for senior military leaders who provide sound strategic advice to strategically competent civilian authorities, there should be little doubt that we want and need the military involved in the high politics of statecraft; but not in the nasty, self-serving internecine squabbling of low politics.
And what sort of distinction should we be prepared to make between “speaking up” and “speaking out”? Speaking up is about giving candid, unvarnished advice within official channels to senior leaders, ostensibly to enhance decision making. It is almost always accepted and encouraged in principle, though often discouraged in practice. Speaking out is about going public, what some would pejoratively label airing dirty laundry in public. For the most part, military and political decisionmakers discourage it – unless, of course, it supports and thereby adds legitimacy to their position (in which case they will shamelessly exploit military voices to their advantage).
Is it acceptable to forbid those in uniform to speak out in opposition to policy, while permitting and encouraging them to speak out in support of policy? When speaking up internally has been discouraged or punished, as it often is, can there be any reasonable alternative but to speak out? Does speaking out externally impose an obligation to have already spoken up internally?
Shouldn’t we also make the distinction between dissent and disobedience? To dissent is to voice disagreement. To disobey is, in the strictest sense, to explicitly refuse an order. In the abstract, the former is generally considered healthy, even if discouraged in reality, and the latter unhealthy, even in the face of malfeasance or impropriety. These countervailing expressions of opposition lie at the heart of politicization. They also uncover many inherent ambiguities of interpretation. Why are dissent and disobedience so often conflated? Why, if at all, must disagreement be kept from public view: out of strategic necessity or merely to hide political disharmony (and thus, more often than not, avoid public accountability)? Is dissent somehow equivalent to the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that outlaw contempt toward officials (Article 88) or mutiny or sedition (Article 94)? If disobedience can be condoned in the case of unlawful orders (such as committing troops to hostilities without congressional authorization, perhaps? or invading the sovereign territory of another country?), why not also in the case of unethical, incompetent, or stupid orders that endanger lives, precipitate violent conflict, undermine U.S. strategic credibility, or imperil fundamental civil liberties and human rights?
Oh yes, then there is the question of expressed orders versus tacit direction. When, in other words, is an order an order, and when is it not? To be official, must it be in writing (especially if it stretches the bounds of legality or mere political acceptability)? Can disobedience occur, if the “order” isn’t an order but instead takes the more common suggestive form of “The president wants…” or “The secretary directs you to…” from a staff minion? What if the president only tweeted it?
Finally, when is political neutrality a real, legitimate reason for being apolitical, and when is it simply rhetorical cover for cowardice: not standing up to be counted when it counts, not speaking up or speaking out in the face of egregious, self-serving behavior on the part of civilian “superiors,” or not putting one’s reputation on the line?
These and other important questions, such as presidential motives and the proper role of the secretary of defense, warrant the most serious public attention if we are to come to grips with the seriousness of the politicization now being visited upon the U.S. military establishment. In so many ways, the United States has become a superpower emeritus, turned increasingly into a mammoth banana republic; and the politicization of the military and other key security institutions is one of the most egregious reflections of this state of affairs.
So what is to be done? What is the “ask” of this soulful disquisition? To say that public awareness and understanding is the answer seems too lame by half; yet that is a major part of the answer. Faced with politicians for whom politicization is staff of life; an entropic, dysfunctional Congress; a Supreme Court that invariably defers military matters to the “political branches” of government to resolve; and an apathetic, ill-informed general public all sharing in the superficial appreciation of the subject at hand, a call for greater public inquiry and deliberation is more than appropriate.
In the final analysis, though, it is the uniformed military itself — most notably the military’s leaders — that must not only shoulder the burden for facing and resisting the politicization it has allowed itself to be victimized by, but also for awakening the public (and their elected representatives) to the democratic, constitutional implications of blatant politicization. One might say it is their duty.
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