It’s not because Trump is a unique risk to U.S. national security (he is, though). It’s because when officers start playing politics, it undermines the independence of and trust in our military.
- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
On Tuesday, the Trump campaign announced the endorsement of their candidate by nearly 90 retired senior military officers. And it’s not the last time we’re going to see the Pentagon on parade this election. Before Nov. 8 finally rolls around, you’ll be bombarded with many similar endorsements. Because the military is the most trusted institution in American public life — far more so than the Supreme Court, religious institutions, the Boy Scouts, or elementary school teachers — they are a coveted prize by politicians.
Eighty-eight percent of respondents to the Hoover Institution’s polls on public attitudes about the military describe themselves as proud of the men and women who serve in the military; and 83 percent of civilians without military experience believe civilian leaders do not rely sufficiently on military advice. So it is easy to see why politicians want to wrap themselves in the public adulation for our military.
Retired military officers have often been involved in partisan politics. Gen. Leonard Wood ran for president in 1920 while still on active duty, campaigning in uniform. Douglas MacArthur gave the keynote address at the 1952 Republican convention (although he was, by that time, widely perceived as a partisan figure — settling scores against President Harry S. Truman, who had relieved him of command in Korea). After the United States ended conscription and professionalized its military in 1975, a more stringent set of norms precluding partisan activity was established — and pretty quickly eroded. Adm. William Crowe (ret.) endorsed candidate Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, protecting him against charges of draft dodging. Campaigns since have competed to release ever-larger lists of veteran endorsements.
At both the Republican and Democratic conventions this year, headline speeches were given by retired generals. Mike Flynn participated in chants of “Lock her up!” from behind the podium on the Republican National Committee stage. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, John Allen marched on stage to martial music with a formation of other veterans behind and encouraged active-duty servicemen and women to vote for his candidate. In subsequent interviews, he said the Republican candidate had no right to criticize his military record, since that candidate had no military service, while intimating that Trump’s election could cause a civil-military crisis. As my FP colleague Peter Feaver has argued, these actions are all far past the line of what has been considered appropriate behavior for retired military in American politics.
Surveys of public attitudes conducted for the Hoover project on civil-military relations suggest a majority of the U.S. public supports the military expanding its role in these ways. Civilian respondents were much more willing than they have been previously to give the military a broader role than our traditions of civil-military relations permit. More veteran respondents than civilians were concerned about the military becoming too involved in nonmilitary policies, such as social issues affecting the broader public or budgetary matters. It turns out that the U.S. military is a better guardian of the restraints on policy activism by the military than the American public. The troops understand better than most civilians why crossing the line and becoming actively partisan are bad for the military.
And here’s why:
It erodes public trust in the military. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCOS), pointed out in expressing his concern about such overt roles in partisan politics, both Flynn and Allen were introduced as “generals.” They are trading on the institution’s credibility to back their judgment, which means that their judgment reflects back on the military. Since, by definition, political endorsements are partisan in nature, associating the military with one party or the other alienates civilians of the other political persuasion. The American military has an institutional interest in retaining the support of all Americans, and political endorsements cut into that support.
It encourages the military to see themselves as political actors. Allen’s defenders point out that Donald Trump poses a unique danger to our national security (a view I agree with), and that therefore Allen’s unusual breach of norms is justified. But principles are not for times when decisions are easy and stakes are low; it’s when every inclination pulls us one direction that our principles restrain us. The argument supporting Allen’s behavior would be a dangerous inducement for the military and retired military to believe their judgment supersedes that of the American voter. And it will make it easier for the military to take political sides in future elections once that norm is breached. Erosion of these norms in the military is evident in veteran responses to the Hoover surveys: On subjects from resigning in protest of civilian leaders’ policies, not carrying out orders they disagree with, or leaking internal government deliberations to the media all show significant change since the 1998 study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.
It makes it harder for active-duty military leaders to do their jobs. This level of partisan involvement by retired officers will cause politicians to suspect that all military leaders have lurking political motives. Survey data already suggest public deference to military attitudes may be causing political elites to scorn the advice of military leaders, or decline to select competent military leaders they believe do not share their politics. Both Dempsey and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current JCOS chairman, have expressed concerns that the advocacy by veterans this election cycle is increasing civil-military friction. Contrast the high degree of support for the military with the result that only 7 percent of the public considers political leaders very knowledgeable about military issues. The combined effect of plummeting support for politicians and high support for the military is worrying, since leaders without military experience (and alienated from the advice offered by the military) are more likely to use military force ineffectively.
Part of the reason the U.S. military is venerated by the American public is that they are considered apolitical. The trust on which our system of civil-military relations relies is made much more difficult when veterans engage in blatant partisan politics as they have this election. It doesn’t matter who lines up behind which candidate. The near-term gain of public support for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton may result in a long-term erosion of the military’s standing with the American public. And that could be more dangerous than either of them.
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