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Ex-Pentagon leaders see military-civilian strain

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-08 10:59

Photo taken on Feb 19, 2020 shows the Pentagon seen from an airplane over Washington DC, the United States. [Photo/Xinhua]

In an extraordinary open letter, the Pentagon's former defense secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned that the "extreme strain of political polarization'' in the US and recent events at home and abroad have put civilian-military relations at a low point.

"We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment," the former top Pentagon officials said in the letter published Tuesday by the War on the Rocks, an online platform for analysis of national security and foreign affairs issues. "Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years."

The signatories include eight defense secretaries, who served under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Two former Trump administration defense secretaries, Mark Esper and James Mattis, who were removed from office by President Donald Trump, signed the letter, as did former Pentagon secretaries Ash Carter, William Cohen, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and William Perry.

Each of the Pentagon's retired top military officers since October 2001 signed it: generals Martin Dempsey, Joseph Dunford, Richard Myers, Peter Pace and retired admiral Mike Mullen.

Mullen, who was the Joint Chiefs chairman under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told The Washington Post in an interview published Tuesday that he is concerned the United States is "on the threshold of losing a democracy", describing the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol as a wake-up call.

Virtually "everything is politicized" at the moment, Mullen said, putting great pressure on military leaders to disregard their nonpartisan traditions.

"We live in remarkably confusing times, and clarity on this issue is very important," he said. "It's a really dangerous time for us in the military, and the forces are out there to try to politicize us more, so clarity here is really important."

In the letter, none of the leaders cite a political leader or party for the situation. But Mullen told The New York Times in an interview Tuesday that while Trump wasn't mentioned, his comments while in office contributed to the strained relationship the letter mentions. He pointed specifically to reports that Trump asked his chief of staff, John Kelly, why he couldn't have loyal military aides like the "German generals in World War II".

The letter "is not pointed at Trump, but when you hear him talk about Hitler's generals, well, that's not who we are", he said.

The leaders wrote that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan concluded "without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished" and the US is preparing for "more daunting competition" with other nations.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the "divisiveness of affective polarization" that resulted "in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was in doubt" as contributing factors to the strain.

"All of these factors could well get worse before they get better," the letter reads. "In such an environment, it is helpful to review the core principles and best practices by which civilian and military professionals have conducted healthy American civil-military relations in the past — and can continue to do so, if vigilant and mindful."

The Post said the origin of the letter was a discussion that began in the spring between Dempsey and Peter Feaver, a civil-military affairs scholar who is sometimes consulted by Pentagon leaders and who teaches with Dempsey at Duke University. They wanted to define best practices for civil-military affairs after Trump and some of his advisers alarmed Pentagon leaders with their rhetoric and ideas, Feaver told the Post.

"We realized that there was a need for a restatement of what civilian control means, and how it applies," Feaver said. "It was striking that as General Dempsey reached out to them to get them involved, to a person they said, 'Oh, yeah. That's important. We need to do that.'"

"There was a desire to make sure that this document was not partisan and did not sound like a partisan critique of any single individual," Feaver said.

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