WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior military leaders take their political neutrality seriously. But this year’s presidential election — with its forays into national security issues that have included proposals for carpet-bombing Syrian cities or waterboarding extremists — has America’s top brass navigating a political minefield.
Senior officers, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down, are frequently being asked to comment on remarks made by presidential candidates. And more often than not, the questions revolve around assertions made by Republican Donald Trump.
Historically, military members have been discouraged from commenting on campaign politics, since the candidate they criticize may one day be their commander in chief, whose orders they would be required to follow without question.
The problem has so troubled leaders that Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he will soon send a formal message to the force urging military personnel to remain apolitical and stay out of the 2016 presidential campaign.
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“It’s very important that we have the trust of the American people, and it’s very important that that trust be founded on us being apolitical,” Dunford told The Associated Press on Friday.
Military officers worry that they must closely watch the campaign so they won’t be blindsided by seemingly straightforward questions that may be designed to pit them against a political candidate.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has, on several recent occasions, stopped his military officers from answering politically loaded questions from members of Congress or reporters.
Last month, Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, noted that Trump had suggested that NATO may no longer be relevant, and asked Carter and Dunford for their assessment.
“I recognize that this is an election year. I will not speak to anything that is in the presidential debate,” Carter responded. “I believe that our department has a tradition of standing apart and I very much value and respect that tradition, and so I am going to, with great respect, decline to answer any question that is framed in those terms, and by the way, also not have Gen. Dunford” answer.
Dunford took a swing at the issue during a later news conference, defending NATO without mentioning the campaign. And on Friday he acknowledged that the military has a responsibility to inform the public, but must walk a fine line doing it.
“I think we focus on the issues and educate people on the issues, as opposed to directly responding to whatever political debate may be out there,” he said. “We absolutely do have the responsibility to be transparent. We have a responsibility to share with the American people the perspective on important issues that affect the U.S. military, and we’ll do that. And I know we can do that in a way that isn’t directly in response to whatever political debate may be ongoing.”
James Stavridis, a retired admiral who served as NATO’s supreme allied commander, said it’s difficult for officers to “dodge every bullet” during congressional testimony and news conferences.
“When they are asked, for example, if they think NATO is a useful organization, the dilemma is clear — answering truthfully and correctly that NATO is important and valuable to the U.S. puts them in clear opposition to someone like Trump,” said Stavridis, now dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “It is a bit of a no-win situation, but they can and will assiduously avoid direct confrontation with the candidates while continuing to speak the truth publicly, which is a big part of their day-to-day job.”
Military leaders have insisted that they must avoid any appearance of partisanship to be effective advisers. The military is loyal to the commander in chief, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.
In a column published during the 2012 presidential campaign, Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote, “We do not pledge to protect blue states or red states, Republicans or Democrats, but one nation indivisible.” He added: “Our lifeblood is the will and support of the American people — we must never forget that. Nor can we act in a way that would undermine their confidence in us or fray our relationship of trust.”
Dempsey’s predecessor as Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, wrote in 2008 that political opinions have no place in the military.
“What the nation expects is that military personnel will, in the execution of the mission assigned to them, put aside their partisan leanings,” Mullen said. “Part of the deal we made when we joined up was to willingly subordinate our individual interests to the greater good of protecting vital national interests.”
The 2016 campaign has provided ample examples of the problem.
A proposal by Republican candidate Ted Cruz to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Syria, spurred questions.
Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of U.S. Air Forces in the Middle East, hit the issue head-on.
“Carpet-bombing is not effective for the operation we’re actually executing because we’re using precision-guided munitions on a regular basis,” Brown told reporters at the time. “And, on top of that, as you look at the … law of armed conflict and us trying to minimize civilian casualties, carpet-bombing is just, in my opinion, not the way to go.”
Military leaders were peppered with questions when Trump advocated the return of waterboarding of captured extremists and insisted that the military would never refuse his order to do so. Asked if waterboarding should be legalized, Gen. Mark Welsh, the chief of staff of the Air Force, carefully sidestepped the issue. The military, he said, doesn’t use such techniques and changing that is a broader policy decision.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the NATO supreme allied commander, was asked if U.S. allies were troubled by such torture discussions. He also walked a fine line.
“Rather than address any single element and to stay clearly out of a political sense, I would just tell you that I get a lot of questions from our European counterparts on our election process this time in general,” Breedlove said. “I think they see a very different sort of public discussion than they have in the past, and I think I’ll just leave it at that.”