Break the Blob's Bad Habits

It should be a key objective of this first post-Trump administration

Bob Woodward apparently has another book out, and in the way of these things his biggest “scoops” are being leaked to the press as a way of drumming up interest. Front of the queue: purportedly, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contacted his Chinese counterpart twice—once in October and once after January 6th—to assure him that America was not planning a preemptive strike on China. Reportedly, he did this without authorization and without telling his boss (President Donald Trump) what he was doing.

Trump has claimed that this is treason, which is a stretch; but as described, it’s certainly insubordination, a flagrant violation of the principle of civilian control of the military.

As well, assuming it actually happened, and that the scenario is accurately described by Woodward (which is not at all certain), it was also, obviously, the right thing to do. We’ve mostly forgotten this as the Cold War recedes in the rear view mirror, but misperception of an enemy’s intentions during a crisis has long been seen as one of the most-likely scenarios for nuclear war. If the world had ended in 1962, that’s how it would have happened; neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev thought war was in their interest, but both countries were on a hair-trigger because both sides knew that whichever side struck first was the only one with a real chance of “winning,” whatever that could possibly mean in a nuclear context. And when two people are on a hair trigger, it’s pretty lucky if nobody gets shot.

Something similar happened in 1983, when American and the Soviet Union may have come far closer to armageddon than most Americans realize, as NATO’s Able Archer exercises were interpreted by at least some members of the Politburo as a ruse behind which America was planning a first strike. Historians are still debating just how serious the risk was, but President Reagan was spooked enough to make developing a personal relationship with the Soviet leader a top priority going forward, and to elevate schemes to prevent nuclear war, from the vaporware Star Wars missile defense system to treaty agreements to eliminate entire classes of nuclear weapons.

China today is not on anything like the hair-trigger that the Soviet Union was back in 1962 or 1983, but if there was any concern in Beijing about American intentions, it was emphatically the right thing to reassure them that we had no plans for war if indeed we did not. Meanwhile, if Trump actually did have plans to launch a preemptive strike against China, which strikes me as utterly fanciful, that order would have been patently illegal and General Milley had an obligation to disobey it. For all these reasons, in the context of the waning days of the Trump presidency, with the president acting distinctly erratic, I don’t worry that much about the precedent General Milley set.

But that’s not the only relevant context.

Both the civilian foreign policy bureaucracy and the military brass started undermining President Trump’s ability to make foreign policy from before the inauguration. And after he became president, we were treated to a seemingly endless parade of stories of how he was manipulated and neutered: removing documents from the president’s desk so that he didn’t withdraw from trade treaties, playing “shell games” with troops in Syria to hide their numbers—the kind of game that bureaucrats have engaged in from time immemorial to thwart their nominal superiors and achieve their own aims, but taken to a much higher level and varnished with a coat of sentimental hogwash that turns insubordination into the highest form of patriotism.

I believe this hogwash was and is mostly sincere; Donald Trump was a genuinely alarming figure to have as Commander in Chief, and I’m not surprised that a lot of people who served under him, including people he hired, felt that a key part of their job was protecting the country from its erratic leader (particularly when the press was basically begging them to do just that). Moreover, under a more effective president, it would have been at least partly self-correcting; when James R. Schlesinger started ignoring orders from President Ford the way he did to President Nixon in his last dark days, Ford fired him (just as President Truman fired General McArthur), which is the kind of thing that gets people’s attention.

But the Schlesinger example illustrates the problem even if Milley’s actions were sincere and justified: insubordination is the kind of thing you can develop a taste for. This is something I wrote and spoke about back when Trump was bragging to Russian visitors about all the amazing intelligence he gets, purportedly burning the sources of that intelligence along the way. I worried that if the senior military brass and intelligence officials did not believe Trump could be trusted, they simply wouldn’t tell him information that he needed to make decisions—and then they would use that ignorance as a reason to make decisions without his authorization. At the end of that road, we don’t have a democracy anymore; we really do have “deep state” control.

Trump is out of office now, of course, which means civilian control of the military and presidential control of the national security bureaucracy can go back to normal. But what, now, is “normal?” Is it normal when the president defers to the military brass and the intelligence chiefs? Or is it normal when they defer to him? If the question is to what degree the national security bureaucracy has developed a taste for insubordination, I think the way the Afghanistan withdrawal has played out suggests that the answer is: too much. Indeed, Milley himself was apparently fortified in his conviction that he needed to go around Trump rather than inform him when he discovered Trump planned to . . . withdraw from Afghanistan before leaving office.

It is abundantly clear that the military never wanted to leave Afghanistan. They sold President Obama on surging troops into the country early in his first term (against then-Vice President Biden’s advice), and they outmaneuvered Trump to keep troops there in spite of his own voiced commitment to withdraw. It’s not crazy to assume that they thought they could convince Biden to reverse course from Trump’s intentions. The chaos of the withdrawal and sudden collapse of the American-allied government make perfect sense if you assume that key policymakers were deceived about the viability of that government as part of a consistent strategy of happy talk, and that those charged with planning for full withdrawal failed to do that planning as part of a strategy of sabotage, in both cases in order to box Biden into reversing course and staying in Afghanistan. Biden called the bluff and pulled the trigger anyway, so the non-stop vilification by insiders of his decision is the final step, an effort to absolve themselves of all responsibility and get Biden to think twice before making a similar move in the future.

I want to reiterate that, to an extent, all of this is somewhat normal behavior by bureaucrats faced with a policy they disagree with. The stakes are much higher than usual, and the scope is wider, but the behavior is familiar. But it is also clear evidence that Biden needs to establish that he is not intimidated, but is willing to do the intimidating, against members of his own party and members of his own administration, even ones he still purportedly has confidence in, like Milley. Milley may well not have been insubordinate at all; he have exaggerated the degree to which he went rogue in order to boost his image with Woodward (that’s certainly the way Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is spinning it). But that’s also a habit you’re going to want to break if you want to wean the press off the notion that insubordination is patriotism. And to break that habit, there have to be job-threatening consequences for indulging it.

Biden needs people who will tell him to his face when they think he’s wrong. He doesn’t need people who tell reporters after the fact that they’re the kind of guy who will go behind the president’s back to protect the country from his foolish decisions, even if, in this case, that isn’t what they did, and if it was, it was probably the right thing to do.