Americans like to gripe about creeping politicization into nearly every corner of their lives almost as much as they like to argue about politics. But they have reason to worry about one area in particular where partisanship has normally been held at arm’s length – the Pentagon. In this case, it’s not the presidential cycle that threatens to drive a partisan wedge in national security, but a budget fight over relatively small stakes.
Over the last few weeks, both major-party presidential nominees have rolled out their claims for preparedness for the role of Commander in Chief. Retired generals spoke at both conventions -- John Allen endorsed Hillary Clinton as the best prepared candidate to keep the nation safe while Michael Flynn argued for Donald Trump’s superior grasp of national-security threats and the determination to end them. Over the past week, both campaigns rolled out lists of dozens of retired military officers supporting them.
This is hardly unusual for a presidential election cycle, when presidential candidates collect endorsements on a broad number of fronts, defense among them. Mitt Romney picked up hundreds of such endorsements in 2012, for instance, although in the end it didn’t lift him to victory. Barack Obama countered with the convention appearance of retired Admiral John Nathman and a handful of other retired endorsers, including former Secretary of State and Army General Colin Powell.
This year, however, the public displays of political support raised the ire of retired Joint Chiefs Chair, Gen. Martin Dempsey. "Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage,” Dempsey wrote in an open letter to The Washington Post shortly after both conventions had concluded. “As generals, they have an obligation to uphold our apolitical traditions,” Dempsey continued. “The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference.”
This seems like curious advice on its face. All of those participating in the political process had taken off their uniforms and no longer served in the chain of command. As Flynn told me at the time while interviewing him about his book The Field of Fight, “I retired from the Army, not from being an American.” Military figures have an honorable route for participating in politics that begin with retirement or resignation, and we have as long a tradition of retired military officers engaging in the political process as we have of the Department of Defense remaining above partisan politics.
Unfortunately, the leadership currently serving at the Department of Defense are in greater need of Dempsey’s scolding. A May memo unearthed first by Politico that circulated at the highest levels of the Pentagon set a strategy to play “hardball” with House Republicans over defense spending and what they called a budgetary “gimmick” to fund operations. The memo has Republicans in both chambers of Congress seeing red, and accusing the Obama administration of needlessly politicizing national defense.
The memo from Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Stephen Hedger advised Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to aggressively attack House Republicans over the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds for normal budget items. The White House had already threatened a veto over the proposal, but Carter took the advice and went further. In July, Carter issued what was later termed a “heartburn letter” publicly outlining his opposition to OCO, an unusual step that raised eyebrows at the time.
The memo also advised Carter to try to split defense appropriations Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen from Speaker Paul Ryan, and to coordinate with Democratic leaders of Congress in doing so. “The veto threat is our primary weapon. However, a veto threat only works if it is supported by the Democratic leadership and their caucuses,” McCord and Hedger wrote. “Our job is to encourage and support those efforts.”
The memo also urged Carter to attend a House and/or Senate Democratic Caucus meeting to push Democrats into line, although that “also risks the appearance of partisanship.” At the end of the memo, they also encouraged Carter to involve “former Secretaries, former military senior leaders, think tank leaders, and media commentators” to push the Pentagon’s agenda.
The Pentagon’s leadership, both civilian and military, can certainly talk to Congress about their concerns over fundraising. Proposing an alliance with Democratic leadership and the White House while leveraging media contacts to go after specific Republicans takes this into a completely new arena of partisan politicization.
Republicans accused the Obama administration of quarterbacking the effort. Senate Armed Forces chair John McCain, who gets a friendly assessment in the McCord/Hedger memo, angrily denounced the White House. “This administration knows no depths they won’t plumb in politicizing defense,” he said in a statement.
Ryan called the memo and its strategy “shameless … for this administration, it's always politics first, even at the Pentagon." McCain’s House counterpart Rep. Mac Thornberry, whom the memo accused of “still smarting” from an Obama veto for the FY2016 NDAA, lamented that it was “unfortunate and rather sad that some in the Obama administration spend so much time and effort playing political games, as evidenced by this memo."
Indeed. It’s all the more cynical given that the memo itself notes that the OCO “gimmick” is actually not all that important. In a footnote, McCord and Hedger note that its inclusion in an authorizing measure “is not dispositive because the ultimate appropriated amount controls the final outcome.” This footnote appears as a further explanation as to how Carter et al can succeed in “capitalizing on [Frelinghuysen’s] discomfort” over the OCO plan.
After watching the FBI and the Department of Justice give Hillary Clinton a pass for her serial mishandling of classified information, perhaps this politicization of national security and defense issues will shock the consciousness of America less. However, it fits into a pattern of partisanship and bare-knuckled political brawling that Barack Obama pledged to end just eight years ago. Instead, it has grown worse – and this memo puts the responsibility for that squarely on the shoulders of Obama’s administration.