Dishonored by the shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan, Milley now appears to have plotted with China behind the president’s back.
It resembles a movie script: “General Li, you and I have known each other for five years. If we’re going to attack you, I’ll call you first. It won’t be a surprise.”
“[General Li], I want to ensure you that the U.S. government is stable and that everything is going to be all right. We will not attack or conduct any kinetic action against you.” In military language, kinetic action is equivalent to acts of war.
The man giving assurances to the current greatest enemy of the United States is U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — in other words, the nation’s top military official.
At the other end of that call is Gen. Li Zuocheng, who holds the equivalent position to Milley’s in the People’s Liberation Army of China.
These telephone calls are in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril,” about Donald Trump’s erratic management and his last effort to hold on to power.
Woodward gave several indications that he was integrating in the book those who had accumulated animosity toward Trump; however, the replayed phone calls were not denied. That means they were either revealed by Milley himself, or someone who spoke on Milley’s behalf, with his permission.
The premise of the book is that although the general’s phone calls to his Chinese adversary did not follow the chain of command and were contrary to military protocols, these calls had a noble goal: to dismantle any maneuver Trump may have wanted to enact, most likely a grand scheme with possibly extremely dangerous consequences — like an attack on China, for example — with the objective to prevent or neutralize his defeat in the reelection campaign.
The main occupant of the White House, despite being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, cannot suddenly start a war without the knowledge and consensus — albeit not unanimous — of the civilians and military that make up the national defense establishment.
Nor can he “push a button” and unleash a nuclear attack at will.
Of course, for those who are anti-Trump, the general behaved heroically by preemptively neutralizing a dangerous and crazy move by the former president. On the other hand, you have those shocked by the activities of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The best reaction came from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
In an open letter to Joe Biden, evocative images from war movies come to mind when he expressed “grave concern,” and said that Milley “contemplated a treasonous leak of classified information to the Chinese Communist Party in advance of a potential armed conflict with the People’s Republic of China. These actions by General Milley demonstrate a clear lack of sound judgement, and I urge you to dismiss him immediately.”
Another well-known senator, the libertarian conservative Rand Paul, said the general should be questioned under oath immediately, if not with a polygraph test. If calls to China are confirmed, he should be immediately relieved of his duties and court-martialed.
You can see this is the type of issue that can provoke some extreme reactions. Trump, of course, supported the criticism and said he never even thought of an attack on China to maintain his hold on power.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serves a four-year term. Milley was nominated by Trump in 2019. At the time, The New York Times said he had won over Trump with jokes, friendly conversations and a willingness to discuss the astronomical prices of American weaponry.
The New York Times said that the talkative general, an altar boy in childhood, liked to quote St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Henry David Thoreau — probably not to Trump’s ears, as evidence of academic knowledge would not make much of an impression on Trump.
This new controversy catches Milley at a time when questions about the withdrawal from Afghanistan are slowly beginning to dissipate. The ultimate responsibility for the retreat rests with Biden; still, more than 100 retired generals and admirals have called for the resignation of Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
How would you react to the information that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has plotted against a president behind his back?
Even in a vanguard of advanced democracy such as in the U.S., the coexistence between the military and civilians in charge is not always easy. In war situations, tempers catch on fire. Franklin D. Roosevelt fired Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral James Richardson for disagreeing with the fleet’s cantonment at Pearl Harbor. The rest is history. Roosevelt also fired his replacement, Husband Kimmel, for lack of preparation for the devastating Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
The most well-known military officer fired in modern U.S. history was Douglas MacArthur, a five-star general in command during World War II. Former accountant Harry Truman fired the war hero, who wanted to attack Chinese territory and create a radioactive cobalt belt to stop the advance of Chinese troops into Korea.
MacArthur tried to circumvent the president’s caution by creating “faits accomplis.”
From this episode a famous Truman quote was born: “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was. I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president.”
Barack Obama fired two Afghan operations commanders, including the brilliant Stanley McChrystal, for a report in which he and his peers made disrespectful remarks toward the president and his vice president, Biden.
Obama didn’t have to fire another legendary general, David Petraeus, who was the director of the CIA, because he relinquished command after his affair with Lt. Col. Paula Broadwell, who wrote his biography and to whom he gave a vast amount of classified material.
Of course, Biden is not going to fire Milley. Rather, he is in a position where he needs to praise Milley’s performance, which makes them intimately bonded.
The Republican opposition will lash out, but it has no power to affect him. Milley will only be tried in the court of his own conscience.