There have been few good days in American civil-military relations lately, so we ought to celebrate them when they happen. Yesterday was a very good day. General Mark Milley, along with SecDef Lloyd Austin and General Ken McKenzie, testified about the end stages of the Afghanistan mission. While senior military officers and the SecDef testifying should not be all that notable, both my current research project and recent events have made this one worthy not just of a blog post but heaps of news coverage.
First, as I am currently interviewing Canadian parliamentarians about legislative oversight, I can't help but notice a big, big difference: Milley and McKenzie were asked about their advice to the President. While I don't expect the President to do everything the senior officers advise (in fact, I don't want the President just to do what they say all the time), we can better understand the President's decisions if we know what advice he got. It also helps us evaluate the military if they give bad advice. It also allows us to see the different mindsets. McKenzie said something that all decisions to depart should be conditions-based, which is not how politics works--time matters.
This reminds me of my time in the Joint Staff twenty years ago when officers tried to ensure that organized crime as a target (a key military task) would be kept out of the various plans for the Balkans since one could never satisfy that condition of eliminating organized crime AND the objective the US military at the time was getting out of the Balkans.
In Canada, the advice the Chief of Defence Staff gives to the Prime Minister is a cabinet confidence. We can't know the input into the PM's decisions. Sure, we can hold the PM accountable (sort of) via question period and all that, but if we don't know the inputs, it is hard to evaluate.
Second, and more obviously, it was a very good day for civil-military relations as Milley made it clear to Senator Tom Cotton (more on that in a minute) that Milley sees his job as giving advice to the President, and, as long as he receives legal orders, Milley's job is to then obey even if the President doesn't follow his advice:
Gen Milley stuff Tom Cotton in a locker today, after Cotton asks him why he didn’t resign over Afghanistan. This is one of the best answers I’ve ever heard a military officer give before Congress. pic.twitter.com/NAqbloa29w— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) September 28, 2021
Milley made it clear that civilian control of the military is foundational, not something that can be challenged because the President does something he doesn't like. This is not what Cotton wanted to hear (unless he was mostly setting up a Fox newsbite).
Milley also made it clear he was not acting outside of the chain of command when he told the Chinese military not to sweat things too much--that the US had no intentions to engage in a conflict during Trump's tantrum filled last days.
Milley clearly has spent much time thinking about civilian control and the norms of civil-military relations since his mistakes in June 2020 during the protests in DC. He is far from perfect, and his conversations with Bob Woodward could have been either sharper or non-existent.
The only real problem was that Tom Cotton exists. That he has ridden his military experience to suggest he is an expert and that he is, alas, seen as a candidate for President or SecDef (his name was mentioned when Trump was looking for a SecDef). Cotton is a fascist wannabe who has a Senate seat--which is not good for American governance.
On the other hand, I was glad that Elizabeth Warren asked whether things would have been different if the US had left a year later. I would have liked to have a question asked of McKenzie, who pushed the "2,500 could have stayed longer": ""General, say we kept 2,500 in Afghanistan despite our commitment to
leave, do you think the Taliban would have just accepted that?"
So, not a perfect day, but far better than what we have been used to. If only these Senators grilled the officers and SecDef when Trump had made the Doha deal last year.