The military’s non-partisan reputation is under attack. Divisive homeland deployments are yet another trend pushing the armed forces toward the crisis of legitimacy already afflicting our most important civil institutions. When President Donald Trump asked governors for National Guard troops to supplement the Washington, D.C., National Guard in late May, 10 Republican governors supplied all but about 85 of the 3,600 troops from 11 states.
Republican governors likewise provided nearly all the Guard troops for the president’s southwest border mission in 2018. Amid politically charged debates over border security and family separations, more than a dozen Republican governors and only one Democratic governor of a non-border state volunteered forces. The escalating political dispute led other governors, 9 of 11 being Democrats, to renege on sending their Guard troops. Support for the mission remains mostly split along party lines.
The administration extended the emergency border operation in June for a third year, but starting in October, National Guard units will be federalized for the operation and no longer under state command. It is unclear if governors will have a say in whether their troops are sent. Hopefully, this is not just another way to stir the pot until the election.
Employing the National Guard under state command when absolutely necessary to support law enforcement is not a partisan issue: Democratic and Republican governors alike put 40,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen on their streets a month ago. And governors are not at fault for exercising their prerogative to satisfy or decline the president’s request for non-federalized Guard forces. The problem lies in stoking a political fire and throwing troops in to crank up the sizzle.
The deployments to D.C. and the border were wrapped in incendiary pronouncements and controversial policies that deepened divides. President Trump did not create the unrest following George Floyd’s killing, but his rhetoric inflamed it and cast the response as a partisan wedge.
Trump’s approach diverged from past presidents who framed the domestic use of troops as a reluctant option, taken only in support of local law enforcement, or as a last resort to be exercised with minimal force. President George H. W. Bush invoked the Insurrection Act to federalize the California National Guard and send in active-duty military units to face the LA riots in 1992. That deployment drew little controversy following the governor’s request and Bush’s resolute but conciliatory words.
The National Guard is called up by state authorities to support law enforcement occasionally, but a controversial presidential request to move Guard troops across state lines under federal authority should remain extraordinary. No other modern president has done it. President George W. Bush’s National Guard border mission was conducted by troops from every state. President Obama’s border deployment relied overwhelmingly on the National Guard from the border states themselves. Although the response to Hurricane Katrina was fraught with partisan and federal-state tension, Bush did not characterize that military mission divisively, and governors from every state and territory volunteered National Guard forces for the Gulf Coast.
When governors representing one political party supply nearly all the National Guard troops for a contentious domestic operation, those in uniform are tainted as partisan no matter how professionally they behave. This is layered over politicians from both parties increasingly showcasing their popularity with the military, trading on the cache of brass as well as rank and file, on-duty and retired, creating the appearance of military partisanship. Trump has broken new ground with brazen claims that the military supports him politically and could turn on his foes. The military’s privileged position above the political fray is at risk as citizens increasingly identify the military with partisanship.
Bipartisan support undergirds American military professionalism and strength, and it has taken the armed forces generations to earn the trust enjoyed across most of the political spectrum. Wide support for the military has facilitated funding, recruitment, and a willingness to consider military counsel. That has not always been so. If the military is viewed as a partisan player, then uniformed leaders will be chosen for party over competence, military advice will be discounted, and the consensus supporting the institution will collapse.
This election season raises the risks for divisive partisan gambits involving home-front deployments. It will be incumbent on public servants in and out of uniform to muster their professionalism, and for those watching to speak out when politicians are caught maneuvering the military, Guard or active duty, into a partisan corner.
The response to recent unrest could have been more bruising. Fortunately, cooler heads in and out of the administration helped extricate the military from confrontations it could only lose. Wielding military power without broad consensus, especially on the home front, poisons domestic politics and undermines the armed forces.
Ian Bryan retired last year as a colonel with the Air Force, serving for the last several years as a congressional liaison at the National Guard Bureau. He flew B-1 bombers and KC-135 aerial refueling tankers and taught as a professor at the Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He is an attorney researching civil-military relations in Alexandria, VA. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Air Force or Department of Defense.
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