Behind the scenes

Trump, China and the general: an act of treachery?

Gen. Mark Milley is accused of contacting his Chinese opposite number to prevent President Trump starting a nuclear war

Calling for America’s highest-ranking military officer to resign is not something one does lightly, said David Mastio in USA Today. But it’s hard to see how Gen. Mark Milley can remain as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) if there’s any truth to the allegations contained in Peril, the new book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. According to them, Milley was so worried that President Trump might start a war with China during his last months in office that he twice contacted his opposite number in Beijing to offer them assurances. “If we’re going to attack,” Milley apparently told Gen. Li Zuocheng, “I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” It seems Milley also “prepared his senior officers to slow-walk any orders from Trump to use nuclear weapons”. On the face of it, these are blatant attempts to override civilian control of the military. 

Some are portraying Milley as a traitor, said Josh Rogin in The Washington Post – others as “the saviour of the Republic”. “In truth, he is neither.” His calls to Li were reportedly cleared by the defence department and had the support of his civilian boss, defence secretary Mark T. Esper, who wanted to reassure China and keep the lines of communication open. It’s not even clear that Beijing genuinely feared an attack; Trump, for his part, insisted last week that he would never have started a war with China. All this story really shows is that Washington back then was riven by deep confusion and infighting. 

As for claims that Milley interfered with Trump’s power to launch nukes, these too are exaggerated, said Fred Kaplan on Slate. When the general summoned senior officials to review the procedures for a nuclear launch, he acknowledged that only the president could give the order; he just stressed the fact that protocol required the chair of the JCS to at least be consulted first. This is very different from what happened in 1974, when the then-JCS chair George Brown told top military commanders that they were not to carry out any “execute orders” from the drunken, unstable President Nixon unless he and the defence secretary first verified the order. “Now that was an act of genuine insubordination” – albeit one justified in the circumstances. The underlying problem here is that US presidents are entrusted with absolute power “to blow up the planet”. That’s what needs to change.

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