Political fights over military make US look weak to China and Russia, experts tell senators
Stars and Stripes February 15, 2023
WASHINGTON — Political bickering over the military makes the United States appear weak to adversaries such as China and Russia and contributes to dropping public trust in the uniformed services, experts told senators on Wednesday.
Fiona Hill, a former U.S. National Security Council official during the Trump administration, said conversations about “wokeness” infiltrating the military and other political fights undermine the strength of the U.S. in the eyes of its enemies.
She issued the warning in response to a question from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who asked during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing what China thinks of a focus on “[gender] pronouns and things like that” in the U.S. military. Some Republicans have attacked the Pentagon for social policies that aim to promote racial and gender equality in the armed forces.
“They watch all of this and frankly, they think we’ve lost it,” Hill said in response to Scott. “The more I'm afraid that we make statements like this, the more that we start attacking our fellow Americans for whatever perspective we think they come from, the more that Russia and China think that we're working ourselves out of history.”
Hill, now a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said the U.S. needs to show solidarity to be able to deter adversaries and unite its partners.
“I think China and Russia do know that we still can be lethal, but we’re most lethal when we get our act together, and [show] that we're all Americans fighting together on one side, and that's what our adversaries and our friends are looking to us for,” she said. “They’re watching us and thinking, you know, has America lost the plot at the moment.”
That thinking is also shared by some Americans who were recently polled about their opinion of the military. A 2022 survey performed by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute found trust and confidence in the uniformed services dropped from 70% in 2018 to 48% in November.
“We asked the respondents why, and the response was clear that the American people believe that the military has become politicized,” said Roger Zakheim, director of the nonprofit Reagan organization. “I think it is not a concern of the American people that the U.S. military is unable to carry out their core mission of protecting this country and being the best military force in the world, it's a concern about politicization penetrating their mission.”
About 62% of surveyed Americans said they believed military leadership has become overly politicized, including 43% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats. Republicans named “woke” practices as the main culprit, without defining what those practices were, while Democrats said they were most concerned about the presence of far-right extremism in the military ranks, according to the survey.
The performance and competence of presidents, the military’s civilian leadership and uniformed leadership also contributed to the public’s souring perception of the military, the survey found.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a former Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, described the public's declining opinion of the military as “alarming.” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Hill’s message resonated “loud and clear” with the committee and the Senate at large, which he said needs to appear united on the armed forces.
“If we have laundry that is dirty and needs to be washed, don’t do it in public when the military’s involved,” Manchin said. “I feel very strongly about that.”