US generals are sending Trump a clear message: law before order

America's military brass are reminding the "law and order President" that the army cannot be leveraged for political purposes

Trump criticised for church photo-op during George Floyd protests

Trump criticised for church photo-op during George Floyd protests
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Behind the scenes of the spectacular demonstrations against police brutality that swept the US following the killing of George Floyd, an extremely consequential drama has been unfolding between American civil and military authorities. The Armed Forces have been compelled, for the first time in decades, to draw stark red lines limiting how much they will allow themselves to be leveraged by a president for political purposes.

US military culture is one of the world's strongest in emphasising the subordination of the Armed Forces to civilian leadership. Most presidents, too, have been careful about not overstepping boundaries and unduly exploiting the military’s obedience.

The US presidency, sometimes uncomfortably, combines the roles of head of government, which confers political and administrative authority, and head of state, which involves representing the country symbolically and presiding over major national civic functions. So, every US president automatically derives tremendous political benefit from public performances as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

Although he has enthusiastically staged the military for political iconography and branding, until the recent protests Donald Trump never fully stepped over the line of egregiously abusing this authority. And the military appreciated the attention he lavished on them and the budget increases he ensured.

However, the attack on law-abiding civilians at Lafayette Park outside the White House on June 1 changed all that. Without meaningful warnings and before a curfew came into effect, National Guard troops, among others, charged peaceful protesters with gas and rubber bullets to clear a path for the president and his entourage to pose for a grim photo opportunity outside a historic church.

This abuse of the Armed Forces, personally ordered by Attorney General William Barr, to suppress the constitutionally-protected free-speech rights of American citizens was bad enough. Perhaps worse, the nation's highest-ranking officer, Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dressed in combat fatigues no less, allowed himself to be drawn into the tableau being staged by the President, Mr Barr and others.

This disturbing scene brought to a head a set of interlocking conundrums that have been developing for the military during the Trump era. This President and his inner circle are clearly willing to exploit the military for undue political purposes. The disaster for the US Armed Forces at what is now ironically known as "the Battle of Lafayette Park" therefore could not be allowed to stand as a precedent.

Ten days later, Gen Milley finally offered an extraordinary public apology to the nation, admitting error and promising to never again allow himself to be manipulated for partisan political purposes. The statement was not just highly unusual but the length of time that passed indicates the enormous amount of internal institutional pressure it represented.

This fiasco also strongly contributed to a stark repudiation by Defence Secretary Mark Esper of Mr Trump's suggestions that the Insurrection Act of 1807 should be invoked to permit the military to suppress protests around the country. Mr Trump reportedly wanted to oust Mr Esper when he insisted that would be unacceptable, but was dissuaded by close allies who argued it would be a disastrous mistake.

So, both the uniformed generals and the Department of Defence have openly rebuffed significant aspects of the President’s policy and political agendas. And the military is now being effectively protected institutionally by Mr Esper (formerly derided as "Yesper” for his unfailing deference to Mr Trump).

But his days may be numbered. If a far-right ideologue and Trump loyalist such as Arkansas Sen Tom Cotton, who urged the widespread deployment of the military against protesters in a notorious opinion column in The New York Times, were appointed defence secretary in his place, it could be much more difficult for the military to maintain its institutional integrity and independence from politics.

(FILES) In this file photo US President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump plans to address the new graduating class of the West Point military academy June 13, as relations with the Pentagon fray over accusations that he has politicized the US military. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski
US President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, left, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, centre, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, among others, from the White House to St John's Church in Washington earlier in the month. AFP

The template established by Mr Barr at the Justice Department, which has been thoroughly politicised, and arguably corrupted, under his leadership, is chilling.

Clearly military leaders will be examining every major new instruction from Mr Trump with much greater wariness. These concerns will only be intensified by the forthcoming publication of a memoir by former national security adviser John Bolton, which will reportedly detail how Mr Trump only ever considers his re-election prospects in making foreign policy decisions, even at the expense of the national interest and stated policies – precisely as I have been arguing for years in these pages.

The military is exhausted at being constantly whipsawed by precisely such capricious political and personal decision-making, producing, for instance, endless confusion regarding deployments to Iraq and Syria. A huge reduction was just announced to the US military presence in Germany, despite recent costly upgrades. This is apparently retaliation for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refusal to participate in a G7 meeting Mr Trump sought to organise, again for obvious political ends.

It has fallen to former senior officers – including former defence secretary James Mattis, former White House chief of staff John Kelly, Gen John Allen, Gen Martin Dempsey, Adm Mike Mullen, Gen Richard Myers, Adm James Stavridis, Adm William McRaven, Gen Raymond Thomas and Gen Mike Hayden – to forcefully express outrage on behalf of military institutions and serving officers that are duty-bound to maintain silence and loyalty.

Taken together, the central and unmistakable subtext of their statements was that under no circumstances would the Armed Forces co-operate if the President attempts to postpone or cancel the November election or ignore its outcome if he loses, as now seems likely.

It is surely no coincidence that this Friday Mr Trump suddenly conceded he could lose the election and promised to accept that. It is a major change from four years ago when he vowed to only accept the result if he won. As President, he has frequently discussed remaining in office beyond the eight-year constitutional limitation and seldom publicly entertained the prospect of accepting defeat.

The message that, if he loses, the military will not help him reject the result, was apparently loud and clear enough to have been received and duly acknowledged even by Mr Trump.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington