Analysis

The Stakes Are High, and We Must Be Better Than This

Six military heavyweights and defense experts weigh in on Trump’s call for the military to put down protests.

A broken Statue of Liberty figure outside a looted souvenir shop after a night of protest in New York City on June 2.
A broken Statue of Liberty figure outside a looted souvenir shop after a night of protest in New York City on June 2. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images
On Wednesday, current and former military leaders came out with powerful messages against President Donald Trump’s calls to deploy the U.S. military to quash nationwide protests against racial injustice, set off by the gruesome killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

What would soldiers putting down protests mean for the United States? Foreign Policy asked six former military leaders and security experts to weigh in.


The American People May Soon Find Themselves the ‘Enemy’

by John Allen, president of the Brookings Institution, a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general, and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.

Every member of the U.S. military—be they active duty, National Guard, or reserve—swears an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Deploying the military against U.S. citizens sends the wrong message at the wrong moment and is antithetical to everything America represents.That is their solemn vow and at the heart of their service to America. History has shown that there are indeed periods when domestic threats or unrest reach such a level that they require the direct involvement of federal troops to keep the peace. Now, however, is not one of those moments.

If the military begins to hold primary responsibility for law enforcement in the United States, I fear the American people may soon—against their own wishes—take on the mantle of the “enemy.” That is simply unacceptable, especially at this horrendous moment of national pain stemming both from the killing of George Floyd and others and from the pressures of COVID-19. And it is well beneath what is needed from America’s national leadership. Deploying the military against U.S. citizens sends the wrong message at the wrong moment and is antithetical to everything Americans represent as a people. The stakes are high, and we must be better than this.


The Call for Force Must Come From the Governors

by Loree Sutton, a former brigadier general and highest-ranking psychiatrist in the U.S. Army who is currently running for mayor of New York City.

Throughout nearly 40 years in public service—as a U.S. Army psychiatrist, retired general officer, and New York City commissioner—I have grown to revere the trust, judgment, and legitimacy on which the character and habits of principled leadership depend. Those entrusted to lead America’s treasure—its daughters and sons—know the moral implications and personal agony involved in ordering troops into harm’s way.When force is not necessary, reasonable, and proportional, the fabric of civic society begins to unravel.

The use of force must be approached with due caution and restraint, even when it is necessary, reasonable, and proportional. When force at any level—local, state, or federal—is perceived or deemed otherwise, the fabric of civic society begins to unravel.

The question we should be asking therefore has less to do with whether federal forces should ever be deployed to quell domestic unrest but whether, at a given moment, the facts on the ground require additional reinforcement. This judgment must come from the country’s governors, exercising their legal authority to do so. Unless and until this is the case, federal troops should remain at their posts, in their camps, and at their stations.


Let Law Enforcement and the National Guard Handle This

by Dana Pittard, a retired U.S. Army major general and the co-author of Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell.

It really is something when two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Gen. Martin Dempsey and Adm. Mike Mullen, both of whom I’ve worked with—feel a need to speak out against using the military on American soil during a domestic crisis. It really is something when two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff feel a need to speak out.We’re at a tough time in our country right now, between the pandemic, the unprecedented unemployment, as well as this bubbling up of something that’s been under the surface for quite a while.

There are occasions when we have used the military in domestic crises in consultation with state governors. I don’t believe we’re at that point yet. At this point it is something that law enforcement can handle—and the National Guard, by the way, is trained for civil unrest.


Packed in Vile Rhetoric by an Odious Leader—but Not Without Precedent

by Richard K. Betts, the director of Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of American Force.

How ironic: Originally it was racists and rightists who most vehemently opposed deploying federal troops to suppress local disorder; now it is anti-racists and liberals who condemn President Donald Trump’s attempt to do so. Some even assert that it would be illegal.To rest opposition to Trump on the notion that using the military for law enforcement is impermissible would reject ample historical precedent.

It was white southerners and the Democratic Party that pushed through the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 that forbids the use of federal troops to enforce law in the states. This cemented the end of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy and enabled the resubjugation of African Americans. Legal ambiguity remained, however: The 1807 Insurrection Act authorizes the use of federal forces and has been invoked numerous times, often to protect vulnerable black citizens.

In 1863, draft riots in New York City killed more than 100 African Americans before they were put down by U.S. Army soldiers and Marines together with state militia. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division and the federalized Arkansas National Guard to safeguard school desegregation in Little Rock. Five years later, John F. Kennedy sent Army units against white rioters protesting integration at the University of Mississippi. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, dispatched them in 1967 to quell the Detroit riots (where they inflicted fewer casualties than ineffectual and trigger-happy National Guard troops) and again in 1968 to pacify Washington (where none of the 13 dead were killed by the military). George H.W. Bush sent Army soldiers and Marines to Los Angeles in 1992. Some of these cases involved more extreme violence than we have seen so far today, some less.

As usual, Trump’s rhetoric and actions are vile and alarming, and his desire to use the military is unnecessary as long as violence does not overwhelm police and the National Guard. But to rest opposition to the odious current president on the notion that using the military for law enforcement is impermissible would reject ample historical precedent, much of which has served justice more than Trumpian villainy.


Our Allies Watch Ashen-Faced and Weep for This Country

by Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School, founding editor of Just Security, and legal advisor at the State Department from 2009 to 2013.

In this defining moment, for personal political gain, the U.S. president wrapped himself in religion, the military, and the rule of law to perform a masquerade that is nakedly antithetical to each. He violated the core biblical mandate to love, not demonize, one another. He violated the core military credo that civilian leaders do not dispatch U.S. soldiers onto U.S. soil to attack fellow citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional rights.To those enabling this revolting charade: Have you no decency, backbone, self-respect, and love of country? And he violated the law of the land, trampling on the Constitution’s directive to respect “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Congress has not authorized, and in fact has forbidden, deploying the U.S. military on American streets, particularly when citizens are lawfully demanding investigation of serious charges of police brutality.

America’s allies around the world are watching ashen-faced, weeping for how the country they respected has been degraded by its leaders. At this historic moment, when we need serious leadership to address the uniquely toxic blend of pandemic, economic depression, and racial discord, shame on the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the attorney general, and Republican legislators for enabling this revolting charade. Have you no decency, backbone, self-respect, and love of country?


Using the Military for Partisan Grandstanding Will Backfire

by Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

There is ample historical precedent for the National Guard and even active-duty military to be mobilized to quell domestic strife. However, even when local law enforcement officials are overwhelmed and governors ask for help, it is a fraught mission for military units, who would generally prefer to stay out of domestic conflict. In the current situation, governors are not asking for help.If there is a genuine threat that law enforcement cannot handle, the public will welcome military backup assistance.

President Donald Trump was inserting federal units into a politically charged situation for what appeared to be partisan reasons: a desire to replace politically damaging reports of the president sheltering in the basement of the White House with more favorable images of him taking charge. Using the military as wallpaper for photo-ops is something every administration in the modern era has done, but it comes at a price. It drags the military into the partisan fray and lowers public views of the competence and trustworthiness of the military as an institution. If there is a genuine threat to the citizenry that law enforcement cannot handle, the public will welcome military backup assistance. But if the military is being used as a prop for political grandstanding, it will backfire.


“Let Law Enforcement and the National Guard Handle This” by Dana Pittard is excerpted from a June 4 interview in Foreign Policy.