A new book written by Robert Costa and Bob Woodward contains an astonishing allegation. In the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice called Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army to offer assurances that the United States wasn’t about to launch an attack on China.
“If you’re going to attack,” Milley said to Li according Woodward and Costa ,. “I’m going ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
The surprise turns out to be the revelation of Milley’s actions. While some in the Defense Department might have been aware of the calls, one thing is clear: President Trump, U.S. commander-in-chief, didn’t. Milley acted on his own initiative, and without approval from the president. On that point, Christopher Miller, then serving as acting Defense secretary, is emphatic, describing Milley’s actions to Fox News as a “disgraceful and unprecedented act of insubordination.”
Providing adversaries with advance notice of U.S. military actions does not number among the prescribed duties of the chairman of the joint chiefs. If the Woodward-Costa accusations are true, they could be considered treasonous. They raise serious questions about Milley’s respect of the fundamental principle of civilian control over the military. Milley apparently granted himself an exemption when Milley was unable to adhere to the principle, which could have led to a different outcome.
Of course, this all happened within a particular context. Woodward’s chilling account and Costa’s disturbing account are just two of many examples of the Trump presidency falling apart after the November election. The incumbent refused to accept defeat and instead dedicated himself to overturning election results, violating the rule-of-law, and waiving the Constitution.
Milley should not have responded in the same way.
By statute, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advises the commander-in-chief. The president decides with military commanders obligated to follow the decisions. Milley communicated with the Chinese general to signal his intent to prevent or undermine any presidential decision that was not in his favor. Milley, who was opposed to a war with China, tried to stop Trump from starting one. He communicated his intentions to Chinese authorities, while the American people were left in the dark.
Was Trump planning an attack against China? Trump denies that it is happening. What would have happened if such an attack had produced the same disastrous results as Milley seems to fear? It is almost certain. Although Milley may have intended to be honorable, his actions set dangerous precedents and were clearly wrong.
But, let’s get clear: The problem is with the U.S. existing system for controlling nuclear weapons use. This system put Milley in an extremely difficult position. Americans have given the power to instigate Armageddon by granting presidents the authority since the dawn of the nuclear age. Although it has been in abeyance in 1945, since Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Nagasaki, this authority could well be the ultimate symbol for the power that the U.S. has invested in them. presidency.
This practice can be dangerous and bizarre in extreme cases, as we should remember from the Trump presidency meltdown. To suggest that Trump’s resignation from office removes this danger ignores the possibility that another Trump-like figure, or Trump himself, may win the White House. Americans can give the presidency to people who aren’t models of stability or good judgment.
If the United States intends to keep a large nuclear strike force at its disposal, as appears to be the case, it needs comprehensive safeguards in place to ensure that reckless and unconsidered decisions about their use are not made. It is not right to depend on American generals to keep a check on presidents who seem to be off the track.
The solution is simple: Congress must act to limit the president’s power to use nuclear weapons. This will require that decisions about the use of nuclear arms be taken collectively, rather than by one individual. Senior military officers are still required to follow their lead.
A useful first step would be for the Senate and House to pass the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2021, sponsored by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) While the bill does not prohibit actions to defend the United States of America, it would ban any president from initiating a nuclear strike without a congressional declaration. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that legislators who have a pronounced aversion towards collective responsibility will address this matter soon.
Milley’s questionable disregard for the principle civilian control should be condemned. Milley’s actions are also considered prudent, given the information we have about Trump’s mental state during his last weeks as president. “It’s amazing to consider the lengths that Milley, and other people went to prevent the disasters Trump was creating at his end of his presidency,” Senator Richard J. Durbin (D.Ill.), told reporters.
Perhaps so. Milley’s awe inspiring feat of courage is not less impressive. Milley’s tenacity is not less impressive. While President Biden expressed his confidence in Milley, he has made it clear that he will fire him immediately.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is “After the Apocalypse” and he is also a contributor to Opinion.