Are civilians still in control of the military?
Democratically elected governments cannot control their militaries by force and, instead, must protect democratic institutions against the usurpation of power through a combination of policies, laws, and values. Our civilian leaders may be falling down on the job.
Our Founders knew that a renegade military was as great a threat to liberty as an installed tyrant. They wrote the first two articles of the United States Constitution to give control over the military to the president as commander in chief and to Congress via the power to declare war.
These powers have been asserted over the military throughout America's history: President Lincoln dismissed General McClellan for disobeying orders after the Battle of Antietam; President Truman relieved General MacArthur of command after MacArthur publicly criticized Truman's Korean War policies; and President Obama accepted General McChrystal's resignation shortly after McChrystal mocked then–vice president Joe Biden in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The ability of military commanders to speak and act of their own will and the power of their civilian authorities to hold them accountable for their words and deeds is an important — if unwritten — check and balance.
All good constitutionalists should therefore experience despair knowing that the top officers in the military no longer seem to feel beholden to their supposedly democratically elected leaders. In 2020, it was revealed that the military brass lied to President Trump about troop numbers in Syria after Trump ordered a withdrawal from the country in 2019.
Just over a week ago, a phone conversation between Joe Biden and the deposed former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, was leaked to Reuters by either the State Department or the Pentagon, according to Tucker Carlson. This transcript shows Biden pressing Ghani to lie about Taliban successes in the country to create the illusion of coalition success. As damning as this revelation is for Biden and how the U.S. government operates under what is ostensibly his administration, there are longer-term implications that should be concerning to the average American conservative if that leak did indeed come from the military.
To the public's knowledge, no military official suffered consequences for lying to the commander in chief about troop numbers in Syria. The Biden administration also appears uninterested in punishing any official for last week's leak.
The question that should be asked is, why not? When any member of the military, but especially general and admiral grade officers, is insubordinate to the Constitution he swore to uphold, that person's commander in chief, and by extension, the people of the United States, should use existing laws and policies to bring him back to heel.
When these are not exercised — and, indeed, the longer they are not exercised, the more threatening a corrupt or interest-conflicted military can become to the civilian institutions that are essential to a functioning and free democracy. Functionally, enforcing these laws and policies protects a vital American value and, indeed, America's national security itself.
Even the strongest critics of Biden and what his presidency represents regarding modern politics and culture, those who would typically cheer for his political embarrassment, should be concerned that his administration is evidently reluctant to re-assert control over an increasingly unaccountable military brass. Disobedience in the field and in the face of the enemy is regarded as treason and has historically been punished severely. How will disobedience in the office chair, in the face of the American public, be regarded?
Image: Joint Chiefs of Staff senior leaders. Joint Chiefs of Staff website.
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