The 2016 presidential election has already stretched political norms and rules of behavior to the breaking point. When it is over, experts will attempt to sort out which events may have changed our democratic election system for better and for worse.
One impact that may prove to be troubling is the practice of using retired military officers for partisan purposes, including speeches at party conventions. The Republicans featured retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at their convention, while the Democrats had Gen. John Allen. Our military has remained one of the few institutions that has preserved a high level of trust among the American people, but both campaigns may have undermined this trust. But why does this matter?
First, clouding objective, strategic, military advice with partisanship could deprive future presidents, Congress and the public of critically important input on foreign policy. If we begin to confuse military advice with political partisanship, then where can do we look for help in crafting defense policy that best serves America’s interests?
Second, appointments to higher military commands are based upon merit and competence, but if the U.S. military becomes politicized, then our civilian leaders will include nonprofessional credentials such as party membership to their selection criteria. History has shown the disastrous consequences of “political” generals who lost battles, campaigns and entire wars.
Third, the erosion of professionalism among military officers themselves could lead to division and distrust within the ranks and between civilian and military leaders. Soldiers assume that their commanders will issue orders based upon the best of professional estimates and not politics, but if that trust is undercut then what is to prevent questioning of orders or even insubordination?
This is how military coups are engendered, and history shows how democracies fall prey to military dictatorships when civil and military leadership becomes entangled (consider the recent counter-coup in Turkey that has jeopardized that country’s fragile democracy with the government’s subsequent, authoritarian crackdown).
Retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has chastised other retired generals who recently appeared at both party conventions because he recognizes the threat this precedent presents to American democracy.
“The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference,” Dempsey wrote in a letter to The Washington Post. “And our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders.”
Usually, this self-policing within the military community is enough to keep wayward soldiers out of politics (Marine officer Oliver North’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal was not well received in the military community; his career ended abruptly).
“The expectation is that you are neutral to politics so that you can do your job, no matter who’s elected”, said Dempsey (http://n.pr/2aYvikD). He knows that once lost, ethical professional standards of behavior are hard to recover.
The question now, is whether America’s exemplary civil-military relationship has finally been broken beyond repair? Ultimately, distrust in our institutions destabilizes the American political system. Has our democracy been further damaged by the politicization and polarization of one more once-trusted institution, the U.S. military?
I pray not.
Michael Khus studied political science at University of California at Los Angeles and wrote research papers about civil-military relations. As a Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps graduate, he served seven years in the Marines as an infantry and intelligence officer. He teaches advanced placement U.S. government and politics classes at Clovis East High School.