There was a curious hypocrisy in the Senate and House Armed Services Committee grilling of Pentagon brass this week – taking glee in apparent criticism of the White House of Joe Biden, but attacking for disagreeing with that of Donald Trump.
These were the hearings that earned headlines because Republican senators were pressing on gaps between public statements by Biden (or Trump before him) and his generals about whether they were all lined up in support of total withdrawal from Afghanistan. What emerged was that the Pentagon had advised both presidents to keep 2,500 troops longer – until Kabul fell and it became obvious that we needed an emergency effort that airlifted 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies out of the country.
In the end, the chaotic withdrawal was a logistical success but a strategic failure, Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs said.
There was blame aplenty for the generals and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told them they should resign — but the real target was Biden, the civilian who set the withdrawal order, carrying out the agreements that Trump had made with the Taliban.
In and among the legitimate questions, what made the hearing painful was the tone and attitude of personal attacks by Republican senators towards Milley, who made the news recently for quotes and actions in trying to rein in any unlawful military forays by Trump in his last months in office.
"Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee didn't just give a dressing down to the nation's top soldier about the Afghanistan pullout; they assassinated his character and impugned his patriotism, accusing him of aiding the enemy and of placing his own vanity before the lives of the men and women serving under him," Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, for example.
As an example, here was Tucker Carlson's opening on his Fox News commentary: "You remember Milley, he's the fleshy, hooded-eyed man who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is also a national disgrace, a living insult to the military he oversees. That's not an insult. It's objectively true. And yet somehow — despite the overwhelming evidence that Milley is dishonest, incompetent, partisan and dishonorable — he still has a highly prominent job. That's the amazing thing," said Carlson, adding, "He is still lying, and doing so with his characteristic relish and enthusiasm."
The unaddressed part of the questions about Afghanistan or about Trump's last months was how the military has been tested by a pull towards involvement in the nation's divided politics.
The whole idea of civilian control is to keep the military above the daily fray of who's in charge, to maintain defense of the nation on a higher plane.
Democrat or Republican, it was fine to press the generals for the nature of their strategic advice to Trump and Biden. But, in the end, it was those two presidents who pushed for withdrawal. That's what is supposed to happen – the president points and the military executes.
Somehow, however, the increasingly sharp exchanges between Republican senators and Milley overlooked that basic principle. They wanted Milley's head on a plate in the name of "accountability" for television coverage of chaos in leaving Afghanistan.
But they did not want at all to look at the same General Milley who was ordered to don fatigues and walk with Trump during his infamous Bible photo op after the gassing and removal of peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square near the White House. They did not want to look at the dangers portrayed in the Bob Woodward and Robert Costa book "Peril" as reassuring an anxious Chinese military that Trump did not plan to attack China — an undertaking done at the request of Trump political appointees, Milley told the committee.
Instead, they saw treason in Milley's de-escalation attempts – which were carried out with the knowledge and direction of Trump's own secretaries of Defense and State. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told Milley, "You're giving a heads-up to the Chinese Communist Party."
Book Quotes as Evil
That Milley was quoted in a book that makes Trump look bad seemed as important a character flaw as botching any kind of orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan to anyone listening to the pointed remarks from Republican senators. The sin is crossing Trump, not crossing a policy line.
"Maybe we're going to remember you three as the three that broke the military," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. "The military was one of the most trustworthy institutions. But in order to get a name in a book, in order to not be drawn into a political fight, what you have managed to do is to politicize the U.S. military."
Civilian control, remember? Trump politicized the military. Biden made the call in Afghanistan.
Sen. Tom Cotton, who, as columnist Milbank noted had last year called for four Army divisions to put down racial-justice protests in U.S. cities, asked Milley why he didn't resign in protest when Biden (like Trump) decided against leaving troops in Afghanistan. "This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we're going to accept and do, or not," he replied. "The principle of civilian control of the military is absolute; it's critical to this republic."
Milbank noted, "Had the senators listened, they would have learned from the generals that they uniformly opposed staying in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31 because it would have resulted in 'significant' U.S. casualties, that Trump's withdrawal agreement with the Taliban was violated by the Taliban from the start and left Afghan security forces demoralized, and that Biden faced the very real risk of the situation escalating into another war if he didn't withdraw."
The question is why the hearing revolved around personal attacks rather than civilian control of our military policies.