How the Biden Administration is Politicizing the Military

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made it absolutely clear that the U.S. military’s top priority is not facing external threats, such as the Chinese or Iran’s aggressive strategy in the Middle East or foreign terrorist groups.  Instead, Austin sees the main threat as coming from within the U.S. military.  In his confirmation hearings, Austin said that he would make it his priority to combat racism and extremism in the United States military. Once confirmed as defense secretary, he ordered a two-month stand-down of the American military in order to examine the problems of extremism among military personnel.

National defense is supposed to be a bipartisan endeavor, yet never before has a defense secretary made such overt moves to politicize the military.  Austin’s order to remove all Trump appointees to the 42 Defense Department advisory boards is unprecedented and downright stupid. I have some experience with advisory boards in a military organization and find them very useful. Advisory boards are a second set of eyes from outside the organization to review policies, planning or course curricula and offer suggestions. Often outside advisors spot a problem your organization overlooked or offer good ideas for better policy implementation. And it’s useful to have a diversity of ideas for policy review. But cutting off all input from anyone connected to Trump (representing 74 million voters) and accepting advice only from Biden loyalists will ensure only party line thinking will be allowed in the military. Two notable defense secretaries were famous for not listening to advice or tolerating debate on policy as they insisted it was “their way or the highway” in defense decisions. Those secretaries were Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, and both led our armed forces into military disaster. Lloyd Austin seems bent on choosing the worst defense secretaries in our history as his leadership models.

Defense readiness is clearly not a priority for Austin. The deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to Washington, which will last until March, will cost the Defense Budget $483 million. This is an awful lot of money to spend on pure political theater against a nonexistent threat.  Yet withdrawing $483 million from the military’s operations and training budget means that in this next year many National Guard unit exercises will be either cut or cancelled completely.  Note that higher unit training is a requirement for maintaining unit efficiency and readiness.  So, we can expect a major downturn in our military capabilities.

An especially troublesome feature of Austin’s focus on extremism is the preference of the military and the FBI to employ the ultra-left Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as their authority on extremism. According to the SPLC, numerous groups that hold traditional views on Christian faith, or which lobby on political issues, are classified as extremist.  For example, the SPLC describes the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has a large membership and lobbies for more restrictive immigration policies, as extremist. Yet, according to the latest Rasmussen polls, a strong majority of Americans favors more restrictions on immigration.

Conservative Christian groups such as the Family Research Council, the Ruth Institute, and the Alliance Defending Freedom are listed as extremists.  Yet such groups simply adhere to mainstream, 2,000-year-old Christian doctrines concerning human sexuality.  Consequently, they oppose gay marriage, argue there are two, not 52, sexes, and oppose homosexual ideology from within the Christian tradition.  All the aforementioned groups are completely peaceful, do not advocate violence, and operate within the American democratic system.  The positions they hold may be unpopular with the Biden administration, but they represent the core beliefs of tens of millions of Americans including all social classes and millions of minority voters as well.

A very disturbing new tendency is the call by some Democrat leaders to investigate the personal civilian lives of members of the Reserve Forces and National Guard. Ever since the founding of the modern Reserve/National Guard system at the turn of the twentieth century, the relationship between the part-time citizen-soldier and the military has been carefully regulated by the Constitution, by law, and by tradition.  It allows for a part-time citizen-soldier to maintain a civilian life separate from life in uniform -- including civilian involvement in politics.  National Guard and Reserve members of all services have full freedom to run for political office, to make statements, and propose policies in their civilian political lives without either sanction or punishment from the military.  It is when they put on the uniform and serve on active duty that they are no longer politicians and must conform to the military regulations and act in a fully apolitical manner.  In fact, this system has worked very effectively for over a century. 

Take the example of Senator Barry Goldwater in his election campaign against Lyndon Johnson in 1964.  Senator Goldwater, in his campaign literature and speeches, made an issue of President Johnson’s business relationship with Texas con man and big-time crook Billie Sol Estes, and his very close relationship with the incredibly sleazy Robert Gene “Bobby” Baker, who served under Johnson as Secretary of the U.S. Senate.  Goldwater’s charges of Johnson’s corruption (and Johnson was a very corrupt politician) were fair and fully within the tradition of United States politics. However, Barry Goldwater was, at the time he ran for president, also a major general in the Air Force Reserve.  Goldwater, who had the very tough and dangerous duty of serving as an Army Air Forces transport pilot over the Himalayas to China during World War II, had moved up through the Air Force ranks by merit.  He had thousands of flight hours and was by all accounts an exceptionally capable pilot and a competent unit commander.  Yet, in the American tradition of the citizen-soldier, when he put on his uniform and carried out his military duties, he left politics behind, as was right and proper.  In 1964, despite the heated nature of the election, it would have been unthinkable for the military to have punished or sanctioned Senator Goldwater in his military status for making strong statements against the president as a politician. 

But will that tradition of the citizen-soldier, currently allowed under law and the Constitution, be allowed to continue under Secretary Austin? The current use of the FBI to examine the civilian lives and social media of 25,000 mobilized National Guardsmen, and the call by Democrats to likewise investigate the social media and civilian life of prospective military recruits, sends the dangerous signal that one’s political life as a citizen is likely to be cancelled in Lloyd Austin’s Defense Department.  

Austin’s steps to politicize the military to a degree never seen before means a culture war on the conservative half of America. That might make Austin extremely popular with Biden, but it will make recruitment and retention for the armed forces pretty difficult. The U.S. military comes disproportionately from the politically/socially conservative states (especially the South) where the military is respected. If Austin bans conservatives from the military under the SPLC definition of “extremism” and takes away the constitutional rights of citizen soldiers in the Reserve and Guard, he’ll never get enough recruits from the liberal states.

James S. Corum PhD is a military historian, author and co-author of 14 books, and is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve.

Image: NY National Guard

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