We have to be able to talk about the military’s political influence.
A heated debate is unfolding over a possible role to be played by the U.S. military in safeguarding the democratic transfer of presidential power on January 20, 2021. Two retired U.S. Army officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, began the furor with an open letter to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, encouraging him to take an active role in ensuring the Constitutionally-mandated democratic transition occurs in January, should it become necessary. But the debate is itself symptomatic of a deeper problem in the political discourse, a disorder that opens the United States to six scenarios where an authoritarian coup is made more likely.
Despite what critics say, there is a logical and arguably appropriate (if not legal) role for the military in mitigating the disaster of a contested presidential election. Unfortunately, due to a quirk in American civil-military relations both as practiced in the academy and as taught in the staff and war colleges, it seems unlikely that military leaders will ever feel empowered to take on that role. If any of the unlikely and very distasteful scenarios described below comes to pass, then we will face a real disaster unless the military acts.
Equally true, however, is that most other interventions by the military would be disastrous.
To parse the debate, it is important to understand that there are two competing visions of the military in the public sphere today. One is the orthodox view, steeped in the reassuring Huntingtonian principles of subordination and nonpartisan, apolitical professionalism. The other is the heterodox view — despised and scorned wherever it appears — that dispenses with the self-serving myth that the military (or indeed any million-person, trillion-dollar organization) can ever be apolitical. Nonpartisan, yes; professional, yes; but never apolitical.
The problem is that the first perspective cannot abide any debate on the role of the military in politics, since these thinkers believe there is no acceptable role. For them, any overt action by the military in the political arena is forbidden. For reasons that have never been clear to me, covert action by the military in the political arena — for example, community relations, industrial relations, congressional relations, or public relations — seems to be fine.
From the second perspective, the military has a gravitational effect on American political life, and so inaction is no less politically charged than action.
These two perspectives are not distributed equally. Only the first is taught at military colleges and debated in polite society. The second is hounded wherever it appears, dismissed as a form of crypto-fascism. From my perspective, however, the opposite is closer to the truth.
On one hand, the orthodox view to keep the military separate from politics has had a long-term corrosive effect, contributing to an ineffective, wasteful military that is never criticized or audited thoroughly enough, and must be left alone as an autonomous, honorable organization for so long as it forsakes any overt political behavior. On the other hand, that same view poses an immediate danger as it insists that the military roll over and accept whatever anti-democratic actions are undertaken by a president clearly intending to do what he can to break the Constitution.
The second perspective — that the military simply is not above or outside of the nation’s politics — demands that we call military silence and inaction by its name: in the worst scenarios, complicity in the shredding of the Constitution, comfort to the enemies of democracy, and facilitation of an authoritarian coup (not by the military itself, but rather the unlawful seizure of power by Trump).
In their open letter, Nagl and Yingling were asking the general to act if and only if an authoritarian coup has already taken place — and to do so strictly in accordance with his personal oath to the Constitution. We see the ascendency of the first perspective in the vitriol poured upon their argument. These otherwise respected figures are vilified as advocating a military take-over and mocked for suggesting that a staff officer (especially the chairman, who has no direct command authority over any troops) should somehow be involved. It is as though the authors were channeling Othello’s Iago, a Spartan dog if ever there was one, in their advice to Milley: “follow him, to serve your turn upon him.”
Nagl and Yingling’s critics are right in describing such military intervention as unlawful and outrageous, but they err in labeling it a military take-over and are wrong in assuring the public it won’t be preferable to the alternative.
A forced transfer of power from Trump to someone else is not a traditional coup but rather a pronunciamento. Although unknown in American history, the type of political transition does occur globally. Of course, it can only be countenanced as an alternative to Trump’s own authoritarian coup.
Those who love democracy will loathe any of the scenarios that follow, and happily none seems particularly likely, especially if either candidate concedes the election.
Six scenarios come to my mind in which the military may, nevertheless, reasonably be forced to act in contravention of all law and good order in order to ensure that law and good order are restored.
Scenario 1: If Biden is perceived as having won and is sworn in by legitimate authorities, but the passage of executive authority (and the nuclear football) is not acknowledged by the federal agencies or some faction therein´..
Scenario 2: If Biden is incapacitated and someone else is sworn in over the objections of Trump and his allies, questioning the passage of executive authority.
Most likely and troubling would be if the general public and key legitimating institutions are incapable of coming to an agreement on who wins the election by January 20. If so, then two other risky scenarios arise.
These next scenarios may seem unlikely, since the Presidential Succession Act would be triggered, which notably would make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the commander in chief. However, as we have seen recently during Trump’s impeachment crisis, a series of legal arguments have already been voiced in the public sphere regarding the legal authority of the act. However spurious these may seem, the fact is that Trump already has a legal justification for a refusal to hand over power to Pelosi, and might reasonably use Pelosi’s negative perception among his base as a wedge to force a constitutional crisis.
Scenario 3: Trump may be sworn-in as a stop-gap measure. Here, the integrity of the democratic process will be sacrificed in order to mitigate damage to the Constitution, but the red line will be pushed back.
Scenario 4: Trump may maintain de facto power and dispense with the symbolic act of being reinstated, in effect denying that a breach of the 20th Amendment took place.
In scenarios 3 and 4, the particular danger is that Trump will be emboldened by this de facto coup and will follow his usual method of slowly degrading institutions. He will replace democratic loyalists with his own allies, gradually gaining control of the federal agencies through appointments, forced retirements, and firings.
Finally, there are two additional scenarios that may overlap with any of the four above, although these appear less likely and would be easier to recognize and counter.
Scenario 5: Trump takes active steps to suspend the normal functions of government through manipulation of the War Powers Act, Insurrection Act, or some other seemingly lawful cover.
Scenario 6: Trump uses loyal security agencies to commit acts of violence and intimidation in a traditional, bloody coup. This is the worst of all outcomes but seems least likely of all, and here military intervention would in all likelihood be authorized by Congress.
In all six scenarios, the military has a role it can choose to play or not to play. Choosing inaction will not be any more legally or morally justifiable than choosing to act, since the premise of all six scenarios is that the American experiment in democracy is suspended.
The hardest thing in each of these scenarios will be to pinpoint a moment in time beyond which officers refuse to follow Trump’s orders. Since doing so will place these officers outside the law, they must only do so once they are certain Trump has already placed himself outside of the law. Notably, in many of these scenarios, no natural red line is ever likely to appear, other than at noon, January 20, 2021.
Of course, for so long as the myth that the military is apolitical remains, we will be unable to intelligently debate how the military should wield its political influence, and it is for this reason that Trump may well once again outfox his opponents in any of the six scenarios described.
Coups and pronunciamentos are nasty things, and discussing them in the American context is deeply distasteful. Nevertheless, facing these scenarios may help us understand the real dynamics general and flag officers will be forced to navigate in the coming months.
Happily, despite the impassioned backlash against Nagl and Yingling’s letter, there is nothing dangerous about discussing these scenarios. We will be better prepared to respond to this new vulnerability in American democracy, whenever it emerges. We may even preserve democracy for another generation.
Thomas Crosbie is an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College’s Centre for Joint Operations, Institute for Military Operations. A sociologist by training, his research focuses on military politics, the military profession and the conduct of war.
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