OPINION: Gen. Mark Milley’s calls with Chinese counterparts pledging to warn of a U.S. attack sets a dangerous precedent for the national security of future administrations

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs the media on Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

The loyalty and the political neutrality of the Armed Forces are a crucial part of any democracy. No democracy can survive in an egalitarian form whilst the military’s leaders are aligned with one side. This careful understanding has been maintained throughout the 245 years of America’s existence, yet in the book Peril by Bob Woodard and Robert Costa, it is revealed that the relationship between Presidency, government, and the military has changed irrevocably.

In the book Peril, it is revealed that Army General Mark Milley, a top military advisor to President Trump, had been in contact with his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng. General Milley cited his growing concerns over an increasingly unhinged Trump and the potential for the President to order a strike on China as a political gamble to remain President.

Already, contacting a foreign adversary’s top official is a rather unusual move, but in the case of President Trump, an unusual President, it is somewhat justified. In the days leading up to January 20th, there was no gauging with an increasingly incoherent and frantic Trump, and rumors that a foreign strike following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani would proceed were mounting. The military has a responsibility to the constitution, not to the President of the United States. Trump’s actions endangered not only the citizens of the United States but that of the global community.

Yet General Milley also promised he would warn his counterpart of a U.S. military strike in advance; a move which crosses the line between unusual and dangerous.

General Milley’s assurance that he would give advance notice of sensitive intelligence pertaining to a U.S. strike to a foreign adversary had the potential to put the lives of U.S. servicemen at risk and is a major breach of his responsibilities to protect the Constitution. By mentioning that he was ready to give advance notice of combat operations due to an internal, political crisis, General Milley set a dangerous precedent as to the role and function of the military whose restraints lie only in that of the office he wished to contain.

The idea of the military rising to assert order in a dysfunctional government is not old; military coups have gone as far back as the Greco-Roman era and beyond. A modern example lies in Turkey; Atatürk’s retinue was completely military, and he championed the role of the military to ensure the stability of the Turkish state. Since there have been around half a dozen attempted coups, with the military intervening to install governments it found favorable.

For a nation like the United States, such an event was unforeseeable. Yet General Milley’s actions and the public’s lax opinion nonetheless set the precedent that, should a military official decide their superior is incompetent and cannot carry out his duties safely, they are able to leak sensitive intelligence to foreign adversaries.

And who regulates that? What if one of the many Trump-appointed Generals adopts the belief that President Biden is senile, and gives sensitive data to a Russian counterpart? Had the earlier escalation in Ukraine this year occurred after Peril‘s publication, any Trump-aligned official, from sections of the American bureaucracy ranging from anything as Defense to Infrastructure could have leaked intelligence to a Russian source.

Most importantly, General Milley’s warnings would have endangered U.S. troops taking part in operations against China, had they been carried out. There is a reason diplomats conduct diplomacy, and Generals conduct warfare. General Milley’s responsibilities to his troops make his would-be leaking of sensitive data a betrayal of his fellow servicemen. Ultimately, as a military advisor, he is not in the chain of command. Any action President Trump planned could go through. Though Congress reserves the right to declare war (and tightened its restrictions on the President’s war-making abilities following Soleimani’s assassination), there is still little that prevents Trump from making a military maneuver that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese response. Had Milley warned China of an American attack, the resulting lives lost would be his responsibility.

General Milley should, if the allegations in the book are proven true, respectfully resign. No doubt he made the right decision in allaying his counterpart’s fears, but in order to avoid setting precedent and ensuring the neutrality of the military remains, he should consider a resignation to a less sensitive post or a thorough proper investigation and explanation for his actions. My respect goes to General Milley for making a decision as a member of the global community to promote peace, but his responsibilities lie in ensuring the continued safety of the Constitution.


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