Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Air Force's 2024 budget request on May 2, 2023.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Air Force's 2024 budget request on May 2, 2023. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

CQ Brown’s Confirmation Hearing Will Get Nasty

The right hated the “woke” Gen. Milley. Wait ’til they meet a general who has fought racism for years.

If you thought the right-wingers hated Gen. Mark Milley and his support for “wokeism” policies, wait until they get a load of U.S. Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, who is now President Joe Biden’s pick to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

Brown is a full-throated leader of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, programs in the military. And he’s no shrinking violet. Early in the summer of 2020, as nationwide protests and riots boiled over George Floyd’s murder, Brown posted a video message that was unusually personal for a member of the Joint Chiefs, explaining how he felt and how the military’s path to diversity has been and will continue to be a long one. After all, the general’s experience with racism and diversity is personal, and he is a rare sight: a Black military officer who made it to the very top ranks of a service branch.  

“In 2020, Brown launched investigations into potential biases in the service’s promotion process and made changes to make it more equitable. The following year, he opened the Air Force’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office,” reports Defense One’s Audrey Decker.

Brown, like all of the service chiefs, has been asked and answered about DEI policies extensively. He supports them and denies that they are a cause of recruiting struggles or retention of current troops.

“What I will tell you is when people join our military, they want to look around and see somebody who looks like them. They want to be part of a team [and] feel like they're included,” Brown said in March, during Defense One’s State of Defense interview series with the Joint Chiefs. “They don't want to join something that they feel like you're put as an outcast.”

I’ve noted how in years past, Republicans who opposed equality and human rights-promoting policies have avoided targeting military officers. Instead, they would claim that Democratic administrations were foisting unwanted progressive policies on the military—even when those policies are supported by a majority of Americans—like allowing minorities to move from the back of the echelons to the front lines; permitting LGBTQ+ Americans to serve quietly during the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and then to serve openly after its removal; opening combat jobs to women; supporting gender-affirming medical care; finding ways for troops to escape state-enacted abortion bans; and so on. 

But the days when politicians honored an unwritten code and protected the military institution from politics are over. Republicans, mostly from the white Christian extremist far right, now attack the generals and admirals directly. For several years, especially since Donald Trump’s 2016 election, they have only increased their attacks. Brown’s confirmation hearings could get nasty. 

Everything is politics in this town, and in politics all is fair. So expect the Republican machine to mount a stiff defense against Brown for his support of all those things. 

Expect Republicans also to challenge Brown on every issue they care about: using troops for border security, his support for arming Ukraine, on Defense Department pork barrel weapons programs in their states and districts, on America’s military interventions around the world, U.S. defense spending levels, and less-than-perfect alliances. 

Expect hawkish Republicans to fluff their feathers about China and look for any crack in Brown’s history that could indicate his senior military advice to the president would be anything less than arming the United States to the teeth and quickly, against Beijing, including to defend Taiwan. 

If the general’s career tells us anything, it’s that he is more than ready to face lawmakers in confirmation hearings. What’s less certain is if Brown is ready for the next four years in Washington. The gap between being a little-known member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and being its chairman is larger than the Fulda. The spotlight is a million times brighter, especially these days. Milley leaves office a hated figure of the right wing. Brown will not be protected by any tradition or honor code that means to keep the military out of politics. If Brown supports anything Biden does that his opponents don’t like, the right will attack.

Then what? Not all JCS chairmen use the job in the same way, but most arrive at least somewhat unprepared for its demands. When U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey became chairman, he bristled at the idea that he would have to advocate for his policy positions publicly or work the backrooms in Washington. He recoiled at the thought of appearing on the Daily Show and giving interviews to David Letterman, as had his predecessor Adm. Mike Mullen. He pledged to be a quieter advisor to his civilian commander in chief. Four years later, he admitted to me that he was naive to believe that was possible. 

Brown is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary career, and certainly not just for the color of his skin. But in these extraordinary times, American politicians who push extremist policies await him in the center of the town square. Publicly, Brown is a calm man, who listens before speaking and is careful with his words. If you didn’t know him, he can come off as disengaged or out of his depth. Woe to any senator who makes that mistake. Brown is as polished as any politician, if not more so than most. He knows what’s coming, I’m sure. And undoubtedly he will be pressured by traditionalists to “keep the military out of politics.” But I believe that’s an impractical goal based on a myth. The U.S. military is and has always been shaped by politics or even at times a driver of it. If the criticism hasn’t started already on right-wing airwaves, Brown surely will face appallingly openly racist rants and allegations. It will be direct. It will be loud. It will be personal. To succeed, the general will have to do more than give his best military advice to the president. He’ll have to defend it to the lawmakers tasked to confirm him, the troops who serve under him, and the American people watching him.