In the early days of the Trump administration, the "deep state"—the permanent bureaucracy of the FBI and other national security-related agencies—targeted President Trump and his national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Some of us warned at the time that there was something fundamentally undemocratic about unelected careerists undercutting the elected president. We were dismissed as conspiracy theorists smearing patriotic whistleblowers.
Now President Biden is in the White House, and it sure looks like the deep state is at it again. This time around the issue is Biden’s announced decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
The press is reporting, based on anonymous sources, that the military brass disagreed with the decision. "U.S. officials said that Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Austin ‘Scottie’ Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO troops, all advocated a conditions-based approach, additional time for negotiation, or, at a minimum, keeping some sort of residual counterterrorism force on the ground in Afghanistan," the Washington Post reports. "The generals said that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, waves of Afghan refugees rushing to neighboring countries and Europe, and the reemergence of al-Qaeda as a potent terrorist threat were very real possibilities."
The Post says Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, "like his counterparts in uniform, supported a continued military presence… A Defense official said Austin’s approach was informed by his own experiences in uniform, including in Iraq, where he oversaw the Obama administration’s rapid withdrawal of forces in 2011. Less than three years later, the Islamic State took over a third of the country."
"Debating Exit from Afghanistan, Biden Rejected Generals’ Views," was a front-page headline in Sunday’s New York Times over an article similarly reliant on unnamed sources.
It’s theoretically possible that these leaks were coming from the Biden White House. They could be boasts designed to make the president look strong and in charge by having overruled the generals and having decisively imposed his own will. But it seems far more likely that the leaks came from the Pentagon ("a Defense official"). They have the sour-grapes flavor of complaints by those who lost a policy debate.
If and when the warned-of consequences—fall of Kabul, refugee crisis, reemergence of al-Qaeda—do materialize, the generals seem to want to make sure that Biden bears the blame.
That Secretary Austin sided with the generals rather than Biden on the matter raises doubts about the wisdom of Congress in granting him a waiver from the law requiring a seven-year wait between military service and civilian leadership of the Defense Department.
A president, after all, does deserve candid advice from his cabinet, but he also deserves discretion and loyalty once a decision is made.
The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief and gives Congress the power to declare war and to appropriate funds. That is civilian control of the military; it’s up to the politicians, not the generals, where to deploy the troops and when to end the deployment. If Austin doesn’t grasp that and instead wants to wage, or permit, a post-decision public relations campaign against Biden’s withdrawal decision, it’s terrain just as treacherous as the trap the FBI laid for Flynn.
The principle that the president is in charge of the executive branch applies equally whether the president is Trump or Biden.
People may be blinded to the consistent application of the principle out of sincere, grave concerns—Russian influence in the case of the Trump administration, the loss of Afghanistan in the case of the Biden administration. In some cases it may be appropriate to air those concerns publicly. Nothing is stopping any top general or admiral from resigning on principle and then giving "60 Minutes" a televised interview describing what a namby-pamby Biden is and outlining the horrors that are about to befall Afghanistan as a consequence.
But so long as the defense department officials remain in the line of command and the order is lawful, the duty of the military is to implement the president’s policy, not to snipe at it anonymously through the press. The warnings of disaster risk becoming self-fulfilling.
Let’s hope they are not. One fine possible outcome would be for Biden to emerge in September 2022 and say, "when I said I’d withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the generals and admirals and even my former-general-rapidly-turned Defense Secretary all leaked to the press predicting widespread disaster.
None of it materialized.
I’m glad I didn’t take their advice. Their warnings were so wrong that I am firing them all, just like President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey."
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative. Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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