The focus on an apolitical US military misses the larger point
A series of hawkish comments about China from top U.S. military officials in recent weeks has put the Pentagon back in the spotlight. Accordingly, most analysts have naturally focused on how these assertions fit within the new Cold War against China.
Yet pinpointing what those claims suggest about the Biden administration’s national security policy overlooks a larger point about the role of the military in American politics: one of a powerful Washington stakeholder with its own policy agenda. And like any influential interest group, it has its own views on foreign policy issues and meticulously tries to advance them. However, the fixation with casting the military as apolitical has allowed it to largely avoid the scrutiny the top brass deserve.
During the Trump presidency, there were many concerns about the politicization of the armed forces and the strains this put on civil-military relations.
These incidents during Donald Trump’s presidency ranged from the president’s attempts to send forces to the southwestern border before two elections to extraordinary threats to deploy soldiers on American soil against Black Lives Matter protesters.
Senior military officials have not helped either. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attracted scathing critiques for political-looking actions, such as accompanying Trump when he walked across Lafayette Square after law enforcement officers dispersed demonstrators there.
Although these breaches of civil-military relations were harmful and erode Americans’ trust in their governing institutions, they belie the reality that the military is actually an entrenched part of the American political establishment and has a long history of trying to use that to its advantage.
During World War II, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated with British intransigence to open a second front in Western Europe, outlandishly tried to pressure Franklin D. Roosevelt into subverting joint Anglo-American global military strategy by switching its primary focus from the European to the Pacific war. Their gambit was an attempt to force Roosevelt’s hand, but it amounted to a group of unelected officials attempting to limit their elected leader and force him to make the policy decision they desired.
The Joint Chiefs’ scheme failed, but for months afterward, they mobilized the bureaucratic machinery at their disposal to divert U.S. resources to the Pacific theater in rebellious defiance of the commander-in-chief.
After the war, this behavior continued. As President Harry Truman pursued unification of the armed forces, many military leaders forcefully resisted it in a bid to jealously guard their own prerogatives and independence. To prevent Truman from succeeding, they attempted to build a coalition of senior civilian Pentagon officials and members of Congress to raise the pressure on the president. Dozens of top uniformed officers testified before Congress to warn of the dangers unification might pose to military readiness.
There was nothing inherently partisan about their actions, but this episode displayed that when Pentagon leaders held divergent policy views from their civilian overseers, they would prioritize their own and use their influence to push their agenda.
Unlike other powerful special interests, the military has the advantage of being embedded inside the executive branch, which gives it additional means to influence policy debates. This includes greater access to senior administration officials, the routine opportunity to testify during congressional appearances and shape understanding of foreign policy issues, and the ability to build strong ties and relationships on Capitol Hill. It is difficult to overstate how much these assets give the Pentagon unparalleled freedom to push their policy beliefs.
Even President Joe Biden has complained about this reality. When he was vice president, Biden was reportedly furious at generals trying to push the White House into committing additional troops to Afghanistan when former President Barack Obama was looking to phase down U.S. involvement there.
As president, Biden confronted his own quiet Pentagon lobbying campaign when it tried to persuade him to ignore his predecessor’s peace deal with the Taliban and keep a modest American presence in the country. Biden rightfully ignored that recommendation, but after the chaotic U.S. exit, top generals, looking to protect their image, publicly contradicted him by revealing they advised him against completely leaving Afghanistan.
A Pentagon without an independent policy agenda would have minimized any differences they had with their commander-in-chief. That these officers came under little scrutiny for distancing themselves from Biden in this remarkable way indicates the focus on an apolitical military has obscured where its real influence lies.
Restoring healthy civil-military relations is vital after recent turbulence. Yet this should not occur at the expense of ignoring the Pentagon’s role as a powerful interest group. For those looking to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy, it is crucial to highlight the ways in which the military behaves as an independent policy actor. To successfully curb the Pentagon’s outsized influence, it must first be properly understood. Deemphasizing a nonpartisan military is an important first step.
Grant Golub is a Contributing Fellow at Defense Priorities and a Ph.D. candidate studying US diplomatic history and grand strategy in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society in Washington, DC, and a project assistant for the Cold War Studies Project at LSE IDEAS, a university think tank. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Business Insider, Responsible Statecraft, and other leading publications. He tweets at @ghgolub.