For US civil-military relations, a slippery slope.

For a good part of my adult life I have studied civil-military relations. I have studied authoritarian and democratic variants, and I have studied them across countries and regions. I have also worked in and with several US security agencies and have lectured on the theme at a number of military institutions in the US and abroad. It is with that background that I say this:

Trump’s deputising of the military for domestic law enforcement is a slippery slope in US civil-military relations. It is partisan manipulation that risks creating serious institutional rifts within the armed forces as well as between the military and society. The president certainly has the legal authority to do so but he also has the constitutional obligation to do so only as a last recourse when the country is under existential threat. Previous instances of deploying the US military in domestic law enforcement roles may or may not have been in the spirit of the constitution, and the precedent is mixed. Sending the national guard to defend civil rights in the face of state opposition is one thing; sending in them to stop looting and rioting is another. What is happening today is similar but different, and worse.

Using federal troops to disrupt peaceful demonstrations is a violation of the constitutional spirit. Using federal troops employing tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to do so is an abuse of authority. Doing all of that in order to stage a presidential photo opportunity featuring Him flashing a bible outside a damaged church–as the head of what is supposed to be secular democracy–is beyond the constitutional pale.

That is the terrain of personalist, party and bureaucratic authoritarians that use the military as a praetorian guard. In the US the military swears an oath to the constitution, not the president, even if he is the nominal commander-in-chief. It swears to defend the US nation against all enemies “foreign and domestic,’ but not in a selective or partisan way. The military is subordinate to civilian political control but in exchange receives considerable institutional autonomy with regard to operational decision-making. It therefore could and should refuse to deploy force as part of a clearly unnecessary politically charged event and in pursuit of ends that are not commonweal in orientation. 

States can already call up their respective National Guards. As a federal district, the District of Colombia covers patches of federal land interspersed with city and private property. Guardsman from DC can certainly be called up by the president for law enforcement duties. Trump has ordered the mobilisation of these troops but also active duty and ready reserve military police units outside of the DC National Guard. That includes combat units such as the 10th Mountain Division, 1st Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne Division’s Immediate Response Force. From early in the fray, military intelligence has been providing counter-protest contingency planning information to at least seven National Guard units.

Note that my immediate concern is not about a descent into civil war or the military having to choose sides in such an event. That is something for another day. Here my focus is on the concept and practice of US civil-military relations as an institutional foundation of the nation. If left unchecked or encouraged, Trump’s actions will tear at the institutional and ideological fabric of the armed forces and thereby undermine the implicit contract that lies at the heart of civil-military relations in the US.

That Secretary Esper and JCS Chairman Milley participated in the photo op charade and a subsequent walk-around with the DC Guard, thereby symbolically legitimising its partisan use, demands that they step down. So too should the unit commanders who refused to question the orders coming out of the White House or chain of command, especially those authorising the use of helicopters as crowd control platforms and blunt force against unarmed civilians exercising their First Amendment right. It is one thing for political appointees in civilian departments to bow to the preferences of the president. It is quite another when top military officials do so.

That is why the military risks institutional fracture if it continues to obey Trump’s orders about its deployment in the current context. The rifts could be between “constitutionalists” and “pragmatists” or “partisans.” It could cleave across service branches and/or between officer and enlisted ranks (known as horizontal and vertical cleavages). Ideological cohesion and corporate autonomy could be lost. All of this because there remains a strong virtuous streak in the military that rejects its politicisation for domestic partisan purposes, and yet it coexists with a hyper-partisan leadership and pro-Trump sentiment in the ranks. The constitutionalists need to prevail in any inter-service dispute about their collective future.

To reinforce this message, the time has come for the armed forces command and Congress to prevent an expansion of the US military role in domestic crowd control roles. The institutional integrity at the core of democratic governance depends on it.

24 thoughts on “For US civil-military relations, a slippery slope.

  1. North America should stop calling itself the UNITED States.

  2. I like the way you linguistically underline your major/theme argument to keep us focussed.

  3. Meanwhile, those who rant most loudly about “tyrannical government” are missing in action. Or, they’re signing up to be part of the praetorian guard.

    War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

  4. As far as I’m concerned the global communities reaction to a very public lynching of Minneapolis man George Floyed is extremely rational in all its forms. You are either on team human race or you are on team racists. One love.

  5. Sam:

    I am going to ask you to not do something that I asked Gorkem not to do. Please do not feel the need to comment on every post, repeatedly, especially when you comments have little to nothing to do with the original subject or thrust of the post. However loose the comments policy may be, I have zero interest in turning my posts into an opportunity for rants, thread jacks, sidebars and other extraneous commentary. This is not a bulletin board. The discussion will be kept tightly focused on the subject at hand.

  6. Barbara:

    It clearly is not working on some of the most prolific recent commentators.

  7. Pablo, maybe they are lonely, (I tried to give a subtle hint, didn’t work!!)

  8. @Barbara: My social life is just fine, thanks.

    @Pablo: I have to say I am a bit saddened. I do comment regularly but that is because I enjoy your blog and find you an insightful commenter who is usually pretty much on the mark, not because I am some kind of social defective or mental obsessive. I am pretty sure I always keep it on topic, I don’t just use the comments to go on about whatever happens to be on my mind. To be mocked and warned for it, well, it doesn’t feel great, and makes me feel like perhaps I should go elsewhere. Although maybe that’s your intent, but still, I felt like I had to speak up.

  9. Gorkem:

    Just keep things on point on any given post and you are welcome to stay.

  10. I woul be happy to, but I have to ask, when do you feel like I have gone off-topic? I am worried we have different ideas about what constitutes being on point.

  11. I can get behind deescalating tensions sure, I also question whether the conditions for desecration has been met, thats not my call either.

  12. Pablo, I really enjoy your posts and use them to help broaden my knowledge. I’ve always enjoyed your media commentary and comments over the years. But I do agree with Gorkem and understand his comment about being a bit saddened by your comments. It always seemed to me to be part of a conversation to include one’s own thoughts on what you have written to indicate you have, at least, read it, even though it may not come from an academic perspective, as in my own case. I’d like to keep reading (and learning). But perhaps you should lay out clearly if you prefer that there are no comments, or exactly what is unacceptable to you or in what format? Some of us may not have a background in political science, but that does not mean each of us are not trying to learn more about the world and to engage with it, and to that effect have found your posts a very useful, informed perspective that often makes me, at least, want to delve further.

  13. Thanks Di,

    For the response. My main objection is endless nitpicking about tangents or minutia, missing or not addressing the main point of a post (especially when using the post as a platform to score unrelated points or make irrelevant arguments), posturing, displays of ignorance or ill-founded opinion masquerading as expertise or fact, and the seemingly obsessive compulsion by some to always have the last word on anything and everything.

    Not every commentator does this every time, but enough commentators do enough of this to cause me heartburn. Over the years I have mellowed somewhat when it comes to arguing with people and banning trolls (the last was the pro-PRC guy “Mark,” who we can safely say did not contribute anything of value during his brief sojourn on these pages). None of the current group of commentators are anywhere close to being trolls or deserving of a ban, but from time to time it seems like we reach the point where the circular argument is about how many angels can dance on a pin balanced on the assiduously studied navel of a self-absorbed toadstool gnome with a penchant for reading Dostoevsky in the late afternoons, then opining on KP in the evenings.

    See what I mean?

  14. Fair enough, Pablo. Thank you for your response. And I do remember Mark. :)

  15. It’s hard to know what to contribute to this post. It is very detailed and informed. I have recently read a couple of articles in Time and the Guardian Weekly espousing a theory of fear that informs violence in police, militia and ordinary citizens. The authors argue that some individuals and group are so terrified of others, in the U.S, African Americans specifically, that it takes little to trigger violence no matter how insubstantial the cause. This is violence at a psychotic level. They also argue that many fearful citizens who would not dream of chasing black people down the road or even speaking to them, identify with the actions of police and so on because of these deeply held fears.

  16. Barbara:

    I think that the fear thesis is a valid one, especially because it some parts of the US there remains deep segregation between racial and ethnic groups and with that the perpetuation of racist stereotypes (the old “black man coming for your white woman” type of thing). But I also think that there is more to it than just long-standing cultural ignorance about race. When I emigrated to NZ in the mid 1990s race relations were arguably at their best in the US. Since then things have deteriorated although African-Americans, Asian and Hispanics have become more prominent in all walks of life (Muslims, not so much).

    The difference? The pillorying and demonisation of minority cultures by rightwing media, in a relentless, non-stop barrage of dog-whistles and hate-mongering disguised as “culture wars” in defence of the “traditional” (read: White Anglo Saxon) way of life. If I had to choose the single most pernicious development in the US in the last 30 years I would say that it is the arrival of Fox News and its imitators. Without them there would be no megaphone for the racists, bigots and xenophobes, and without the megaphone they would be forced back into the shadows where they were forced to retreat in the 80s and 90s. I realise that it is not all of Fox News fault but like I said, it is IMO the foremost amongst them.

  17. Hola Pablo

    This whole scenario will be very interesting to see just how it plays itself out.

    My wish list would be for U.S politicians to take a leaf out of the book of their South American counterparts eg Argentina and Venezuela?? who called a halt to the mindless violence and created a dialogue with their ideological opposites just so their societies could return to a sense of normality

  18. I agree 100% with your warning about the dangers of the US President using the military in domestic crowd control, as yes it will lead to ideological fracturing, within the military. It will be pitching service personnel against their own friends and family. The military is made up of people ( who have family, friends and faith), not robots. And yes sometimes the officers have a higher duty to not obey orders. Scott Peck wrote an excellent book on that topic called People of the Lie. I once wrote a service paper when I was in the NZDF about the dangers of an exercise scenario in which the NZDF was pitched against our own people. It went to Staff Legal and came back in agreement with me which was great. I do hope that our PM can be given advice to this effect before possibly accidentally ever moving in that direction. I hope your article has reached her!
    But in saying all that, I would like to raise the question of the place and role of Christianty in politics. You mentioned that the USA is supposed to be a secular democracy- but is it? I grew up in Canada- similar vibe to the USA, and Im pretty sure that Christianity was and is at the heart of the ideoligy of the USA. I dont think a “secular ideology” is at all stable. It is inherently weak because there is no firm doctrine behind it. Christiantity on the other hand is the opposite, it is the way, the truth and the life. I for one am very glad to see the US President and his wife at a church with bible in hand.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment and I hope you find them relevant.

  19. @Elisabeth: I think what Pablo means is that according to the letter of the US Constitution, the USA is a religiously neutral country – it specifically states that the government is not allowed to favour any religion. The Founding Fathers had the option to write christianity into the Constitution, and they would have faced very little resistance had they done so. But they deliberately did not, and that decision has never been formally overturned, although it has been chipped away at.

    There is a very big difference between a country where the majority of people are christians, and a christian country.

    To use a slightly odd metaphor, there’s no doubt that the majority of people in New Zealand are heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean New Zealand is a “heterosexual country”.

  20. Thanks Elisabeth,

    For the comment. I agree with Gorkem on the basic premise that the US was founded as a secular Republic. But I also agree that the separation of church and state is very much blurred at times. Most US coins have “In God We Trust” inscribed on them, the pledge of allegiance mentions “one nation under God, indivisible” and everything from the opening session of Congress to local school board meetings begin with a prayer of some sort. So the religious orientation of the Republic is certainly there.

    What is different is that the God-bothering is supposedly non-sectarian, so for all the talk of the Judeo-Christian traditions underpinning the US, the Federal and State governments and their bureaucracies do not swear oaths to any particular monotheistic fairy worshipping cult. Because that would be, in fact, divisive.

  21. The Founding Fathers came from the English jurisprudential system of the separation of Church and State. This has perhaps become blurred over time. NZ follows it. We certainly had the doctrine of the separation of powers drummed into us at law school (Auckland Uni).

  22. @Barbara: You are confusing two different things. Separation of Church and State is a phrase commonly uesd to summarise the provisions of the US Constitution re: religion (it doesn’t appear in the constitution)

    Separation of Powers, OTOH, is a doctrine not directly related to government religious policy, and instead describes the separation of a government’s functions (usually legislative, executive and judicial) into separate, autonomous and usually veto-wielding bodies. Separation of Powers originates from Montesqieu, and predates the US Constitution quite considerably, although Montesqieu was very influential on the Founding Fathers and the first generation of American politicians.

    They co-exist in the USA (although as Pablo sagely notes, they are not always honoured in practice). But while they may be informed by the same broad spirit of civil philosophy, they are not the same thing and it is possible to have one without the other. For example, the UK has a separation of church and state but does not have much in the way of separation of powers. Conversely, Iran has a very strong separation of powers (arguably even stronger than the USA, at least in theory) but obviously does not separate the church and the state – even Iran’s laws on religious liberty, such as they are, are grounded within the context of an Islamic state benevolently extending tolerance to other religions in order to achieve goals of quality of life and public good, rather than members of these religions having an equally valid stake in the state.

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