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How concerned should we be about Gen. Milley?

Not very

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, holds a news briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 18. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
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The foreign policy community, already reeling from a bad month, is having a full-on freakout about the details emerging from Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa’s forthcoming book, “Peril” (as if the title was not already a giveaway). A lot of these people know a lot more about civil-military affairs than I do. Cards on the table, however: I am unconvinced that this freakout is justified.

The source of all the teeth gnashing boils down to Milley’s actions in the last few months of Donald Trump’s presidency. My Post colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker has the juicy bits in his story, which boil down to two concrete actions.

  • First: “In a pair of secret phone calls, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike.”
  • Second, “Milley also summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, saying the president alone could give the order — but, crucially, that he, Milley, also had to be involved. Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood, the authors write, in what he considered an ‘oath.’ ”

Some of the details are even more hair-raising:

In the book’s account, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack, stressing the rapport they’d established through a back channel. “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
Li took the chairman at his word, the authors write in the book, “Peril,” which is set to be released next week.

CNN has further details on Milley’s state of mind:

Milley, deeply shaken by the assault, ‘was certain that Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies.’ Milley worried that Trump could ‘go rogue,’ the authors write.
“You never know what a president’s trigger point is,” Milley told his senior staff, according to the book.
In response, Milley took extraordinary action.

So, to quote Bruce Banner, this all seems horrible.

The usual suspects are outraged, but concern goes beyond partisan hacks. Outside the Beltway’s James Joyner writes, “this raises troubling questions about the propriety of Milley’s actions … it is the job of civilian policymakers, not the armed forces — much less the Chairman — to check an unstable President.” Carrie Lee, chair of the department of national security and strategy at the U.S. Army War College, damns Miller in her Monkey Cage essay: “Woodward’s reporting suggests that Milley attempted to have senior military officials double-check with him should Trump give an order to launch nuclear weapons out of the blue. However, this is an authority that Milley, by public law and open-source doctrine, does not have.” A former Trump national security official blasted Milley to my Post colleague Josh Rogin, accusing the Joint Chiefs chairman of “freelance diplomacy” when he “could have caused the Chinese to miscalculate and take some sort of diplomatic, economic or military action with far ranging consequences, because he was giving the wrong signal.”

Even those sympathetic to Milley’s motivations question his actions:

The thing is, I still can’t get worked up about this. The first and most important thing is that I question the accuracy of these anecdotes. Woodward’s book has not even been released yet, so these are reactions based on second- or third-hand reports. Even with what has been released, there have been distortions.

For example, Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin noted Tuesday that claims about Milley freelancing are wholly unfounded: “There were 15 people on the video teleconference calls, including a representative of the State Dept and the read out and notes from Milley’s two calls with his Chinese counterpart were shared with the IC and the Interagency [intelligence community].” She further reports, “Milley did not try to insert himself in the chain of command regarding the launch of nuclear weapons, but he made sure everyone knew what their roles were and what they weren’t.” This makes Milley’s actions seem pretty kosher.

Another concern of mine is whether Woodward’s reporting captures the context of what actually happened. There are two issues at play here. The first is whether Woodward appreciates the nuances of what he is reporting. Writing in Slate back in 2013, Tanner Colby noted that Woodward’s reporting was not sloppy with the facts but super sloppy with the context:

In the final product, a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right — some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong. There’s no question that he frequently ferrets out information that other reporters don’t. But getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.

Context matters a lot here. For example, Woodward writes that PLA Gen. Li took Milley at his word. How would Woodward get that piece of information? Is it from Milley? From Li? From a third party? Furthermore, if you read Politico’s Lara Seligman and Daniel Lippman on the China call, everything about the call seems pretty normal!

This leads to the next problem. Based on his prominence in these excerpts, it seems safe to conclude that Milley was a source for Woodward and Costa. It is widely perceived that Woodward’s sources tend to be portrayed in a more favorable light in his books. More importantly, however, Woodward’s sources tend to be portrayed as pivotal to the narrative. Just as Colin Powell was at the center of Woodward’s “The Commanders,” Milley seems to be at the center of “Peril.”

This raises some doubts in my mind about whether Milley’s actions were as monumental as portrayed in the book. I do not doubt that he contacted his Chinese counterpart and that he reminded senior officers about following the law and consulting with Milley before taking military action. But the China calls appear to have been entirely by the book, and the nuclear consultations appear to be, as the Naval War College’s Tom Nichols puts it: “Milley’s way of giving top cover to other officers in case Trump tried to issue a direct order to someone to do something nutty.” Interesting, but perhaps less groundbreaking than the initial reports suggested.

If these revelations reveal a crisis of civil-military relations, it’s more on the civilian side, as Trump’s reactions have been, well, awfully immature.

What stands out to me is that Milley’s actions bolster Elizabeth Saunders’s hypothesis that foreign policy subordinates have more leeway when working for inexperienced policy principals than experienced ones. Milley was able to do what he did in no small part because he did not think Trump knew what he was doing. In contrast, Milley’s approach to Biden was far more circumscribed, in no small part because of Biden’s experience. According to Woodward and Costa, Milley told the Joint Chiefs, “You’re dealing with a seasoned politician here who has been in Washington, D.C., 50 years, whatever it is.” Unsurprisingly, Milley complied with Biden’s order to withdraw from Afghanistan.

As more information comes out, I reserve the right to grow more concerned about what Milley did during the transition. From what I can see, however, Vice President Mike Pence’s desperation to please Trump’s every whim was a far more dangerous threat to the republic than anything Milley did.

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