Subtweets Are Partisan Too: Why Retired Generals Can’t Avoid the Parties

August 27, 2020
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The second evening of the virtual Democratic National Convention featured a video segment trumpeting the preparedness of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to serve as the country’s next commander in chief. Trading on his 36 years of military service, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein touted Biden mostly by way of denigrating the nominee’s opponent, whose actions in Weinstein’s view are “un-American” and a “danger to national security.”

Speaking to media the next day, Weinstein explained he worked with the Biden campaign to “ensure my thoughts” expressed at the convention “didn’t violate any norms.” While it’s unclear which norms Weinstein was referring to, it’s safe to assume they did not include the enfeebled civil-military norm against retired general officers making partisan endorsements.

 

 

To his credit — and the credit of his more prominent follow-on act at the convention, retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell — Weinstein criticized the current president and endorsed his challenger without making any allusions to standing atop some mythical, nonpartisan high ground. While many of his retired general peers may disapprove of his display of blatant partisanship, they too-often fail to recognize how their own public commentary also registers in partisan tones.

Retired generals who choose to speak out should drop the pretense that their rhetorical interventions into the national dialogue transcend the partisan coloration that saturates present-day American politics. In America’s polarized times, even when retired generals sincerely try to remain above the fray, their forays into the public square will likely be construed by the media, and perceived by the public, as expressions of partisan commitment.

Dempsey and the Mythical “Nonpolitical” Political Intervention

Consider, for example, the public engagement strategy of retired Gen. Martin Dempsey. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “never think[s] it’s appropriate for senior military leaders to publicly and personally criticize the president, as he is the elected leader of the country.” He further recognizes that his identity as a retired four-star general — and the identities of other retired general and flag officers — is inextricably wed to the institution that credentialed him. Concurring with many civil-military relations experts, Dempsey believes the military norm of nonpartisanship should apply not only to active military members but extend also to retired generals, lest the public conflate the partisan sympathies of a former military leader with those of the military at large. Dempsey cautions that the trend of retired generals publicly speaking out against the president and other elected officials “should not become the ‘new normal.’” This hasn’t, of course, prevented Dempsey from attempting to influence the public discourse. And as a result, he hasn’t escaped the sensationalized reception characteristic of these partisan times.

As part of his effort to appear as “nonpolitical as possible” when offering advice on military matters, Dempsey has carefully eschewed mentioning President Donald Trump (or his deputies) by name, instead regularly “subtweeting” the president. For instance, following the infamous St. John’s Church photo op, Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s reference to American cities as a “battlespace,” and the president’s proposal to employ active-duty troops to help control protests across the country, Dempsey delivered the following 280-character sermon to his 127,000 Twitter followers (which, notably, does not include @realDonaldTrump):

 

This was not the first occasion Dempsey found to provide unsolicited leadership and military counsel to the Trump administration. And yet, there is nothing, on its face, obviously “partisan” about Dempsey’s interventions into the public conversation. On the contrary, they convey lessons on leadership, civility, and the use and misuse of the U.S. armed forces, each informed by decades of experience making difficult decisions.

But you wouldn’t know just how hard Dempsey and many of his retired general officer peers have tried to stay above the partisan fray if you follow national headlines. For Dempsey’s mild musings on social media, leading outlets tell us his “daily trolling” is the fuel propelling the “officers’ revolt” he’s supposedly leading from semi-retirement in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Even well before Dempsey hit the “tweet” button on June 1 — and well before the president’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act that inspired him to do so — national media confused Dempsey’s didacticism for anti-Trump partisanship. In February 2019, the New York Times published an exposition of Dempsey’s tweets, opining that Dempsey’s online moralizing is but a thinly veiled reprimand intended for “an unnamed audience of one.”

Speaking Out Versus Partisan Attack: A Distinction Without Difference

As the media’s treatment of Dempsey illustrates, senior military leaders live in the same hyperpartisan world all Americans do, meaning they possess no more ability to stay above the partisan fray than the U.S. Postal Service on whose behalf they claim to speak out.

It is the less-disguised forms of partisanship like Weinstein’s candidate endorsement, however, that civil-military scholars worry can damage the military institution. It is tough to forget how, in genuine bipartisan fashion, retired generals flocked to party conventions ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Many will recall retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn orchestrating the crowd’s “lock her up” chant at the Republican convention or retired Gen. John Allen marching onto the stage at the Democratic convention to implore the active-duty force to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Heidi Urben, writing a few weeks ago in these pages, issued a timely and data-laden reminder that such endorsements can be incorrectly perceived as a vote of party preference from the military as an institution, and its current leadership, rather than an expression of personal partisan preference by the particular retired generals bestowing them. Americans often conflate the two, since they aren’t particularly skilled at differentiating between active-duty and retired generals. For instance, Urben tells us that “only 31 percent of Americans could correctly identify Secretary Jim Mattis’s military status as retired” even after he resigned as defense secretary, according to a forthcoming book authored by War on the Rocks regulars Jim Golby and Peter Feaver.

In this particular case, it is possible people are confused about Mattis’ status because Trump (and national media) insisted on referring to the retired generals in his administration by their former rank. It is further possible (though not mutually exclusive) that the confusion derives from an unresolved debate over what it means to be a “civilian” overseeing a uniformed institution after spending several decades in that uniform. Regardless, the conclusion seems clear: Since Americans fail to distinguish between active-duty and retired generals, endorsements from retired general and flag officers can undermine public confidence in a nonpartisan military every bit as much as an active-duty general’s endorsement.

Thus, Urben joins other civil-military specialists in urging the adoption of a civil-military norm against retired generals leveraging institutional prestige for partisan purposes. Embracing this norm, however, she ensures us, doesn’t “mean senior military leaders should not speak out on critical issues relating to their expertise.” Americans should be able to distinguish, she contends, between a retired general lending a partisan endorsement, on the one hand, and providing public counsel to policymakers, on the other.

Unfortunately, the polarized nature of present-day American politics virtually guarantees that distinction will go unnoticed. Whatever fine line that may have separated the partisan from the political in the past has been effectively erased. In a world in which the decision to wear a mask or vote by mail amid a pandemic divides citizens along partisan fault lines, retired generals should recognize that rebukes of the president are de facto endorsements against one candidate in a two-person political contest. This political reality does not necessitate a norm precluding retired generals from speaking out, but it does undermine the civil-military scholars’ case that outspoken retired generals can somehow transcend partisan politics.

The “speaking out” that Urben and others condone — even encourage — is, after all, the self-described public engagement strategy of Dempsey, which has done little to alleviate the perception of partisanship.

Perception (of Partisanship) Is Reality

Casting further doubt on the plausibility of nonpartisan outspokenness is the fact that not all retired generals strike (or even strive for) the same nonpartisan tone that characterizes Dempsey’s public commentary. Indeed, if Dempsey’s “nonpolitical” approach to political influence appears suspect, the claim of nonpartisanship from other retired generals is an emperor with no clothes.

While there are less-prominent examples, consider the remarks of another former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who, alongside Dempsey, is approvingly cited as a standard-bearer of nonpartisan outspokenness. By proposing the deployment of the military to quell domestic unrest, the president had, in Mullen’s judgment, “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.” For expressing “concerns that the military would be politicized in the eyes of the American public,” as Urben describes Mullen’s intervention, the American public read headlines registering just how political senior military leaders have become. Mullen, according to press coverage, joined an “unprecedented” wave of senior defense officials issuing a “stinging rebuke” that “bashed” the commander in chief. If our journalists cannot (or will not) distinguish between partisan attacks and what Urben calls a “defense of preserving the military’s norms,” ordinary Americans are unlikely to see the difference either. More likely, Americans will perceive these rebukes as dressed-up endorsements for the incumbent’s challenger.

With scant regard for what Dempsey, Mullen, and their peers actually say — and the context that inspired them to speak out — news headlines will place their words squarely on one side or another of the partisan divide. The unfortunate paradox is that when retired generals speak out in attempts to shield the military from politicization, they may inadvertently politicize the military.

Yet rebukes such as Mullen’s, in Urben’s estimation, do not constitute partisanship since they “sprang from [the retired generals’] views on the proper use of military force and concerns that the military would be politicized in the eyes of the American public.” “Outspokenness in defense of preserving the military’s norms,” she argues, “is a far cry from a partisan endorsement, and the military and civilians alike should be able to distinguish between the two.”

But wait: If “only 31 percent of Americans” can distinguish between Secretary Mattis in a black suit and Gen. Mattis in fatigues, why should we be confident Americans are up to the much more nuanced task of determining where this critique of the president, and incumbent candidate, “sprang from”? In a world in which 69 percent of Americans believe (or, are indifferent) that Mattis was exercising military control of the military as defense secretary — in a world in which Dempsey’s tweets signal that an “officers’ revolt” against the president is underway — surely few will be able to distinguish between “outspokenness in defense of preserving the military’s norms” and a partisan reproof of the president. And as we’ve seen, the media will give the public very little help in making that distinction.

Thus, perception is what matters. During my brief career as an Army officer, I was taught ad nauseum that perception trumps reality when it comes to the military’s relationship with the society it serves. The civil-military scholars tell us, in fact, that the reality of partisan biases in the military doesn’t matter nearly so much as the public’s perception of partisan bias (or lack thereof) in the military. Perceptions of impartiality protect the military’s credibility, while perceptions of partisanship can erode Americans’ trust in the institution.

There Is No High Road Above the Fray

But if retired generals are struggling to walk the tightrope between partisan attack and enlightened corrective, then the challenge facing active-duty senior military leaders might be best described as tiptoeing through a minefield, wherein any step into a political issue can injure the military’s nonpartisan reputation. The latitude afforded by some civil-military scholars — for “senior military leaders” to “speak out on critical issues relating to their expertise” — risks further normalizing pronouncements from active-duty military leaders that place the armed forces at the center of polarized debates.

Such “critical issues” presumably include the ongoing discussion over renaming 10 military bases named after Confederate generals. Current Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s seemingly innocuous vow to take “a hard look” at proposals to change the base names was met with the same partisan media treatment that Dempsey et al. faced when speaking out in early June about military involvement in the protests. Mere minutes after Milley announced a “review” of the base names during congressional testimony, headlines proclaimed, “Joint Chiefs Chairman Defies Trump on Bases Named After Confederate Traitors.” Despite the fact that a congressional majority supports efforts to rename the bases — and both the secretary of defense and secretary of the Army are reportedly “open” to the idea — national media was quick to expose that Milley’s position placed him at odds with his other boss, the commander in chief, who has made clear his intent to veto legislation directing the name changes. While a far cry from insubordination, a crude reading of the situation might interpret Milley’s position as a challenge to the most foundational of civil-military norms: the commander in chief’s civilian control of the military.

The upcoming election is unlikely to ameliorate the increasing politicization of the military, as Urben and others aptly warn. Civil-military theorist Risa Brooks, recently commenting on the potential of the upcoming election to implicate the military in some form or fashion, predicted: “No matter what the military does in the event of a messy election, part or all of it is going to end up on someone’s side, or at least be perceived that way. In an age of zero-sum politics, there is no neutral ground; no high road to take.” If partisanship has blocked the high road for current military leaders, there’s little chance retired generals — whom most Americans cannot distinguish from their active-duty successors — can find a route above the fray either.

Own Your Speaking Out

In a world in which the nonpartisan is made partisan, we should conclude that nearly all statements by senior military leaders — active or retired — are likely to be perceived as partisan. Even when the military is not center stage or an intended target of partisan barbs, it still operates within the partisan political landscape. The criticism of Milley’s role in Trump’s photo op outside of St. John’s Church focused precisely on this: He should have known that his actions in accompanying the president would be perceived in a partisan light. It is curious that the same scholars who criticized Milley in this instance fail to consider the more subtle ways in which “speaking out” against military politicization may, paradoxically, politicize the military.

If retired generals truly believe Americans’ enduring trust in the military (still the best in the institutional business) is now at stake, their intercession may be justified as a means to raise the political costs for elected officials considering misguided policies that undermine that trust. But we cannot have it both ways. It is inconsistent to ask retired generals to rescue the military from a president’s attempts to politicize the institution, as some civil-military scholars do, and then later demand those generals remain silent about the nation’s presidential selection if they fear that one candidate is more likely than another to politicize the military. We should recognize that all such interventions — even when limited to matters of military expertise — are likely to have partisan repercussions. To entertain fantasies that retired generals can use their prestige to intervene at critical junctions and also remain above the partisan fray belies America’s polarized situation.

Whatever the intentions, to speak out in this political environment is likely to be perceived as planting a flag firmly on one side of the partisan turf. While subtweets and op-eds are perhaps less crude than delivering a speech at a party convention, each leaves little doubt in the minds of partisans about whom the retired generals are rooting for or against come November. It remains unclear to what extent (if at all) the retired generals’ outspokenness will harm the reputation of a nonpartisan military in the long term, but what is clear is how that outspokenness will be perceived in our current polarized environment. Retired generals who choose to speak out should own that much.

 

 

Luke J. Schumacher is a U.S. Army intelligence officer soon departing active duty. A graduate of West Point and Cambridge University, he has served in interservice, civil-military, multinational, and special operations units in South Korea, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Afghanistan, and the western United States. Follow him on Twitter @LukeJSchumacher. The views here are those of the author and do not represent the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Nell King)