Military Prestige During a Political Crisis: Use It and You’ll Lose It
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked himself into a civil-military problem when he strode across Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this week. Milley was literally following President Donald Trump, who was on his way to be photographed in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in order to counter stories about the president holed up in his basement while riots raged outside. Milley has since tried to distance himself from the visuals.
The damage, however, may have already been done.
Our research suggests that linking the prestige of the military to controversial policies carries with it unintended consequences, including the potential for reduced overall confidence in the military and increased doubts about the military’s competence, truthfulness, and other dimensions of trustworthiness.
In survey experiments we conducted last June, we found that priming the public to think the military supported or opposed the president on another politicized issue — Trump’s border policy — significantly damaged public trust in the military, causing drops of eight to 11 points overall. The precise results varied with both the partisanship of the respondent and whether the military was depicted as supporting or opposing the measure. But, the overall effect was marked: Wrapping the military uniform around a controversial policy comes at a price in overall public attitudes about the military.
Of course, our research shows that there is also an understandable reason for which political leaders are willing to politicize the military and, thereby, risk these unintended results. Interestingly, while the policy gets a very small increase in popularity if the public is told the military is in support of the measure, it decreases in popularity if told the opposite. As a result, hugging the military is something of an insurance policy for political leaders when they are facing severe criticism on a given measure.
For decades, American senior military officers have been complaining about being asked to serve as “wallpaper,” standing behind the president to lend gravitas — and perhaps the penumbra of public confidence in the military — to shore up the political position of a struggling administration.
However, therein lies the problem for both the military and the nation. Presidents who are struggling politically have a powerful incentive to wrap themselves in military garb precisely because the American public holds the military in high esteem. But, when the language of national security is stretched to provide cover for what is otherwise viewed as a nakedly partisan effort, it jeopardizes the very esteem for the military on which the administration relies.
Civil-military specialists have long worried about this phenomenon as a potential problem. In our experiment, we demonstrated that this problem is real. We randomly divided respondents into groups and gave them each different prompts about Trump’s decision to deploy troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. Then, we asked them all a battery of questions about their support for the policy, assessment of the threat, and opinions about the military.
When we gave respondents information claiming that polls showed that most troops — 65 percent in our prompts — had taken a clear side on the policy, we observed large effects. While military support for the policy had little effect on public support of the same policy, telling respondents that 65 percent of troops opposed the border policy decreased public support of the same policy by 12 points down to 28 percent, with larger downward shifts among Republicans than Democrats.
On the other hand, reports that the military had taken a side — either side — significantly damaged public trust. Compared to the experiment’s control, telling respondents that most troops supported Trump’s policy decreased their confidence in the military by 11 points, from 68 percent to 57 percent. Telling them that most troops opposed Trump’s policy decreased confidence slightly less with only a seven-point drop to 61 percent. Public assessments of military competence, truthfulness, partisanship, and shared values showed similar decreases, though the effects varied slightly by political party.
Interestingly, our research suggests that these effects hinge on who is sending the signal. When told it is either Trump or congressional critics who are describing military support, there is minimal effect. When the military’s view of the policy is described more neutrally as a fact, alleged military support or opposition has a bigger effect on public attitudes to that same policy.
This observation then brings us to the present case: We think a picture — the picture of Milley walking out of the White House compound behind Trump on the way to the photo op at St. John’s — may be worth a thousand words as it conveys the idea of support without requiring a controversial political leader to explicitly make the claim.
To be sure, defending the border from intrusions can be a legitimate national security mission for the military. Likewise, so can putting down a domestic armed insurrection. However, when there is not a consensus in the public that putting down an armed insurrection is what the military is really being asked to do — when it could look very much like a partisan political stunt rather than a serious national security concern — then partisan politics can distort the legitimacy of the action. It is precisely in such moments when political leaders will also be most tempted to attach their actions to military prestige and attempt to capitalize on the presumption of good faith that the public’s trust in the military bestows.
Yet, the very act of using military prestige — and using the military — in this manner undermines the foundations of that prestige. Having the military give voice to and visually undertake politicized maneuvers erodes the very trust that leaders want to appropriate.
However, our research suggests that what Trump says about the military may matter far less than how the military and its leaders respond. Can the military continue to be non-partisan and trustworthy when it is put squarely in political crosshairs and asked to take a side?
By midweek, we had a partial answer as all of the service chiefs and particularly Milley himself had delivered thoughtful and carefully precise messages to their rank and file of how to think and act professionally in this extraordinary moment. If the White House lets them lead in this way, the senior officers might navigate a way out of this crisis.
When the crisis is a political one rather than a national security one, public confidence in the military may be a “use it and lose it” proposition. Moreover, the consequences of lost trust amidst the volatility of the current crisis could be far more consequential for the military — and the nation — than bad poll numbers.
Jim Golby is a defense policy advisor at the U.S. Mission to NATO. These views do not represent the U.S. Mission to NATO, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and director of the American Grand Strategy Program at Duke University.