The Pentagon and White House are Not People and Don’t Do Things
A misleading, annoying media trope that needs to go away.
A story from AP’s Lolita Baldor titled “Pentagon tells White House to stop politicizing military” is driving me nuts. My initial reaction was that an outrageous violation of civil-military relations had occurred. But, no, all that happened was lazy writing.
Usually, these things are the fault of a headline writer who is either trying to describe a complex story in a limited space and/or grab reader attention with a sensationalized heading. But the fault here is Baldor’s, as the error is in the lede:
The Pentagon has told the White House to stop politicizing the military, amid a furor over a Trump administration order to have the Navy ship named for the late U.S. Sen. John McCain hidden from view during President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Japan.
The Pentagon and the White House are office buildings. They do not talk. They’re often used as shorthand for high-ranking officials who work in said buildings and, sometimes, that’s fine. Here, though, it gives a false impression.
Had high-ranking members of the uniformed military—which is what I tend to think when people say “the Pentagon” did something—told high-ranking civilian officials—much less the Commander-in-Chief—not to do something, it would be outrageous. But there’s no indication in the story itself that this happened. Indeed, while Baldor is usually an excellent reporter, it’s not at all clear from the story what actually did happen.
Trump’s top aide scoffed at the idea that anyone working for the White House might be punished. “We think it’s much ado about nothing.”
A U.S. defense official said Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s acting defense chief, is also considering sending out formal guidance to military units in order to avoid similar problems in the future.
Shanahan confirmed details about a Navy email that said the White House military office wanted the USS John McCain kept “out of sight” when Trump was in Japan about a week ago. The internal Navy email came to light last week, triggering a storm of outrage.
Nothing thus far has anything to do with the headline or the lede.
Trump’s top aide is right, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit. And Shanahan, who as a civilian policymaker actually has every right to make strong suggestions to the President about such things, isn’t actually doing that here. Instead, he’s “considering” offering better guidance to his subordinates.
Trump, who long feuded with McCain, has said he knew nothing about the request, but added that “somebody did it because they thought I didn’t like him, OK? And they were well-meaning, I will say.”
Shanahan told reporters traveling with him to South Korea on Sunday that he is not planning to seek an investigation by the Pentagon’s internal watchdog into the matter “because there was nothing carried out” by the Navy. He added that he still needs to gather more information about exactly what happened and what service members did.
“How did the people receiving the information — how did they treat it,” Shanahan said. “That would give me an understanding on the next steps” to take.
Shanahan did not detail what those steps could be, but a defense official said Shanahan is considering a clearer directive to the military about avoiding political situations. The goal would be to ensure there is less ambiguity about how the military should support VIP events and how service members should respond to such political requests, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Again, nobody in the Pentagon is telling anyone in the White House anything here. Shanahan seems to be pondering clarifying procedures. Which he should definitely do. More on that latter, too.
The order to keep the Navy destroyer out of sight reflected what appeared to be an extraordinary White House effort to avoid offending an unpredictable president known for holding a grudge, including a particularly bitter one against McCain.
Trump’s acting chief of staff, in appearances on two Sunday news shows in the U.S., said he did not expect anyone working for the White House to face discipline. “To think that you’re going to get fired over this is silly,” said Mick Mulvaney, making the comparison to someone who tries to sit bickering colleagues apart from each other at an office meeting.
“The fact that some 23- or 24-year-old person on the advance team went to that site and said ‘Oh my goodness, there’s the John McCain, we all know how the president feels about the former senator, maybe that’s not the best backdrop, can somebody look into moving it?’ That’s not an unreasonable thing to ask,” Mulvaney said.
If in fact “some 23- or 24-year-old person on the advance team” was responsible for the directive, I’m one hundred percent with Mulvaney on this. Junior staffers for even ordinary bosses sometimes go overboard in an effort to please them. It’s perfectly understandable that an eager beaver working for Trump would think hiding the McCain would be a good idea. That it was actually a really, really bad idea for a whole host of reasons strikes me as a teachable moment, not a cause for firing. Loyalty ought run both ways and it sends a terrible message to fire someone for exuberance of initiative.
At the same time, Shanahan should indeed issue clarifying directives to convey the message that “the White House” is not the Commander-in-Chief, the President is. Orders to do things like moving a goddamn guided missile destroyer come through the chain of command, not some snot-nosed staffer. If a staffer makes such a request, run it up the flagpole before acting.
This isn’t a new issue or one particular to this administration. Rosa Brooks, who served as a senior Pentagon official for President Obama, described the situation a few years ago:
Here’s a small but not atypical example. A few readers may remember the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Several hundred people were killed by police and ethnically aligned mobs, many more were wounded, and thousands of refugees (mostly from the Uzbek minority population) fled their homes.
Within the White House, these events triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide. One day, I got a call from a member of the White House’s National Security Staff (NSS). With little preamble, he told me that Centcom needed to “move a surveillance drone over Kyrgyzstan, ASAP, so we can figure out what’s going on there.”
This wasn’t such a crazy idea. Drones and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets have the potential to be powerful tools in human rights monitoring. The ability to watch troops or mobs or refugees move in real time, to see weapons being stockpiled or mass graves being filled, might help us take timely and appropriate action to stop a genocide before it gets off the ground.
There was one enormous problem with my NSS colleague’s request, though: Neither of us had the authority to order Centcom to immediately shift a potentially vital asset from wherever it was currently being used to the skies over Kyrgyzstan.
“It’s an interesting idea,” I told him. “Has the president discussed it with [Defense] Secretary Gates?”
“We don’t have time to spin up a whole bureaucratic process,” he responded irritably. “The president doesn’t want another Rwanda. This is a top priority of his. I need you to just communicate this to Centcom and get this moving.”
This, I explained, wasn’t going to work. The chain of command doesn’t go from a director at the NSS to an advisor to the defense undersecretary for policy to Centcom — and the military doesn’t put drones into foreign airspace without a great deal of planning, a lot of legal advice, and the right people signing off on the whole idea.
My friend was incredulous. “We’re talking about, like, one drone. You’re telling me you can’t just call some colonel at Centcom and make this happen?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Why the hell not? You guys” — meaning the Pentagon writ large — “are always stonewalling us on everything. I’m calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?”
“You,” I told him, “are the wrong civilian.”
Assuming the order regarding the McCain indeed came from some over-eager staffer and not someone high in the chain of command, it came from the wrong civilian. And the leadership of the McCain should have goddamn well known that and gotten verification before doing something so stupid.
Now, if Mulvaney and company are lying and the order in fact came from the President, the Acting Secretary of Defense, or some other official with the authority to order guided missile destroyers around, then we have a whole different problem.