When he became commander in chief, President Joe Biden wasted no time replacing the military service secretaries and acting head of the Defense Department. If he wanted, he could also name a replacement for Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley, who came under scrutiny under President Donald Trump for participating in a politically loaded photo op.
But Milley’s likely to keep his spot — and experts say it would be bad for the nation if he doesn’t.
It’s unlikely there will be a shake-up to the Joint Chiefs, The Associated Press reported last month, though an unnamed Pentagon official told the Responsible Statecraft, a publication of the Quincy Institute think tank, that Milley could be asked to retire early so that newly minted Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, the first black service chief, could step into the role.
Any sort of change to the Joint Chiefs — no matter the reason — “is a terrible idea,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former national security official in the George W. Bush administration.
“Having violated one of the central norms of civil-military relations by appointing a recently retired general officer as the secretary of defense, this would violate a second civil-military norm,” Schake said, referring to Lloyd Austin, a retired Army four-star general who was confirmed last month to be the nation’s first Black defense secretary. But first he needed a congressional waiver to allow him to serve in the role because of a rule stipulating that nominees must have been out of the military for at least seven years.
High-ranking officers have been shown the door before, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, removed as head of the United Nations Command during the Korean War; Adm. George Whelan Anderson Jr., who was forced to take early retirement after serving as chief of naval operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who served as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010 but was dismissed after making unflattering remarks against then-Vice President Biden in Rolling Stone magazine.
But removing a sitting chairman would be highly unusual, said Richard Kohn, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specializing in American military history, national security, and military policy and strategy.
“The only comparable thing would be Gen. Peter Pace in 2007 when he was not renewed for a second … term,” Kohn said. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended that Pace, the first Marine Corps general appointed to the chairman position, not serve a follow-on term, citing a lack of Senate support.
At the time, Pace’s critics said he was too compliant and ineffective on military matters involving the Iraq war, according to an NPR report. But his supporters blamed former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld for neglecting to fashion a new counterinsurgency strategy, which put Pace on an irrecoverable path, NPR said.
Milley has admitted that accompanying then-President Trump through Lafayette Square park to St. John’s Church on June 1, 2020, was a mistake.
The event, which came after authorities used pepper spray and flashbangs to clear the park and streets of largely peaceful protesters, prompted him to issue an apology days later, saying, “I should not have been there.”
Before taking office, Biden criticized Trump’s politicization of the military.
“[Trump] deployed the U.S. military, tear-gassing peaceful protesters in pursuit of a photo opportunity in the service of his reelection,” Biden said, during a press conference following the Capitol siege, comparing the summer protests and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“[It was the] action that led to an apology from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an outspoken denunciation of the use of military for domestic political purposes from scores of former military leaders and secretaries of defense.”
Both Schake and Kohn blamed Milley’s faux pas on Trump.
“Milley made an enormous mistake by letting himself be played into the Lafayette Square business last summer,” Schake said.
Kohn said, “He navigated two years of Trump effectively. … But it would be radical, and it would be extraordinary if they eased him out.”
One option would be for Biden to ask Milley to retire and name him as an ambassador to a strategic ally, he said.
It’s likely, Schake argued, that Milley’s apology actually reinforced to uniformed members the U.S. military’s subordination to elected civilian leadership.
“I actually think leaving him in place is a reminder that fixing mistakes once you make them is actually a really good thing to do, and it strengthens the norms to repair them,” she said.
With Austin at the helm, the department is already working on ambitious plans, including a climate change strategy, preventing sexual assault and harassment in the ranks and more.
A leadership shake-up would be a distraction, Schake said, and a removal would be “a hit at Congress’ authority, which set those rules [on the chairman tenure].”
“Having a big public conversation about why or why Milley doesn’t deserve it, I think it’s probably something the administration [is] smart enough to avoid,” Schake added. “Treating the military leadership as if they are untrustworthy, unless they’re ‘your guy,’ is another infraction of civil-military relations, and it will create a military that becomes that. That’s bad for the Republic.”
— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.
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