US President Donald Trump’s threat to use military force to quash nationwide protests has sparked gleeful gloating from America’s ideological opponents. From Moscow to Tehran to Beijing to Pyongyang the accusations of hypocrisy pour forth.
“How come US politicians called rioters in Hong Kong heroes, but when it’s happening in America, they are labeled thugs?” asked China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan. His Russian counterpart, Maria Zakharova, said the US “simply cannot have any questions for others in the coming years.”
But criticism of Trump’s demands – which the White House has walked back – has also come from much closer to home: from within the Department of Defense and from the man he appointed to head it, Mark Esper. On June 3, the Secretary of Defense openly broke with his Commander-in-Chief, stating he was against invoking the Insurrection Act – the mechanism that allows for US troops on active duty to be deployed in a law enforcement role. Esper’s predecessor, General Jim Mattis, went further. Breaking his own promise to never openly criticize the president, he excoriated Trump for setting Americans against one another.
This opposition from the current and former military leadership arises from grave fears that politicizing the military threatens the cohesion of the defense department and even its future as an institution. Several factors underline those fears.
The first concerns the reputation and standing of the military. The US military is consistently ranked as the most trusted public institution in America. A July 2019 survey released by the Pew Research Center shows that 83 percent of respondents have high confidence in the military. For one side of the political divide to use it as a visible tool is a surefire way to completely erode that trust in at least half the American population.
Second, the military’s apolitical status is central to its function in the overall chain of command and also to its funding. It means the military remains beholden to the elected civilian leadership, regardless of which party holds that leadership. By extension, this helps to insulate the military from political retribution. The Department of Defense receives its funding from Congress. If it were to be perceived as a partisan institution it would be at grave risk of losing part or all of its funding if an opposing political party came to power.
Third, the armed forces – despite drawing more recruits from certain demographics – ultimately comprise and represent the American people as a whole. Wading into the middle of an explosive societal issue risks inflaming those same tensions within the ranks, thus jeopardizing the military’s cohesion. This is especially true since the protests are about opposing racism and 43 percent of servicemen and women come from racial and ethnic minorities, including 16 percent from the black community.
Finally, the US military also understands full well that its forces are, frankly, terrible at law enforcement. The armed forces are trained to use violence, not prevent it. The US has already struggled mightily with counterinsurgency and peacekeeping campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deploying forces for an expansive domestic law enforcement mission where even more restraint is required would be courting disaster.
Beyond these core reasons for not deploying the US military on home territory except for disaster relief, there are also some equally relevant, practical considerations.
The first is that pouring troops into crowd control situations would greatly increase the risk of spreading Covid-19 through the ranks. The virus has already caused one aircraft carrier to be sidelined in Guam and the armed forces have since gone to great lengths to decrease the risk of contagion. A domestic law enforcement mission would erode many of these barriers for the units deployed in that role.
It is, however, unlikely that deploying troops at home poses a risk for overseas operations – at least in the short term. The troops that would most probably be tasked with the domestic mission are, in the vast majority of cases, not the same troops that would be called upon to immediately react to and repel an adversary abroad. Nevertheless, the timing of the crisis is most unfortunate. The US military is already facing difficult decisions about its overseas commitments and the evolution of its force structure. A major domestic crisis would be an unwelcome distraction from these important deliberations.
As those barbed comments from certain countries show, deploying the American military against fellow Americans could be greatly damaging to America’s credibility on human rights and leaves the US with no way to rebut accusations of hypocrisy and double standards when it criticizes China or Iran for cracking down on protests.
Given all these reasons, the remarkable level of dissent against Trump comes as little surprise.
Omar Lamrani is a geopolitical analyst specializing in conflict analysis and military issues. He was previously Senior Military Analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor.