Perils for Pentagon as Trump threatens to militarize response to civil unrest

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – “Battlespace” was the word U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper used to describe protest sites in the United States. The top U.S. general then reinforced that image by appearing in downtown Washington in camouflage during a Monday evening crackdown.

Helicopters that could easily be mistaken for active duty U.S. military ones staged show-of-force maneuvers in Washington above people protesting the killing of an unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

As President Donald Trump increasingly turns to militaristic rhetoric at a time of national upheaval, the U.S. military appears to be playing a supporting role – alarming current and former officials who see danger to the institution of the U.S. armed forces, one of America’s most revered and well funded.

“America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” Martin Dempsey, the retired four-star general who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Twitter.

A current military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced concern about the lasting damage that would come from using the military as a “political prop.”

“Presidents come and go … the uniform has to be maintained,” the official said.

For Trump’s critics, the Republican president’s reliance on the military in domestic endeavors risks making the armed forces, which are meant to be apolitical, appear aligned with Trump’s political agenda. He has previously employed the military to help stem illegal immigration and used defense funding to build his border wall.

But drawing the military into his response here to the sometimes violent civil unrest that broke out in Minneapolis last week and spread to dozens of cities, is particularly problematic.

At the core of the discomfort is a single idea: The U.S. military was designed to protect the United States from foreign adversaries and uphold a constitution that explicitly protects the rights of citizens to peacefully protest.

Even the head of the National Guard acknowledged that responding to domestic crises makes his troops uneasy. So far, more than 20,000 National Guard members have been called up to assist local law enforcement with protests around the country.

“This mission is an uncomfortable mission. They don’t like doing it, but we can do it,” said General Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

UNWITTING SUPPORT?

Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Trump on Monday as he posed at a church near the White House after law enforcement officers used teargas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters.

Trump had just delivered a speech condemning “acts of domestic terror,” and saying the United States was in the grips of professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals and others.

But a senior defense official suggested neither Esper nor Milley knew about the photo-op and had been at the White House to give Trump an update on response efforts.

“As that meeting concluded, the President indicated an interest in viewing the troops that were outside and the secretary and the chairman went with him to do so. That’s the extent of what was taking place,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kori Schake at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and an expert on U.S. civilian-military relations said Esper and Milley need to be held to account for their “shocking” decision to appear in that setting.

“They made choices. They could have said, Mr. President, I think it would send a bad signal for me to do this,” Schake said.

Alice Friend, a former Pentagon official, said Esper and Milley – by using terms like battlespace – were also blurring the lines between American citizens in the United States and enemies in warzones.

“To divide and conquer at home, using the United States military, is an incredible escalation of the government’s coercive power,” said Friend, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A senior defense official, asked about such criticism, said Esper was simply using the terminology he’s accustomed to using as the leader of America’s military.

But the Pentagon’s role in the civil unrest could soon dramatically deepen if Trump decides to deploy active duty forces, something the U.S. military has been reluctant so far to do.

Trump on Monday threatened to send active duty U.S. troops to stamp out the civil unrest gripping several U.S. cities.

To deploy the U.S. military for law enforcement purposes, Trump would need to invoke the Insurrection Act here — something last done in 1992 in response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

To that end, the U.S. military has pre-positioned active duty forces, largely military police and engineers, on the outskirts of the Washington D.C.-area to potentially deploy, if needed.

The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee said discussions about the Insurrection Act could easily make U.S. troops “political pawns.”

“I am concerned that in the current environment, it would be all too easy to put our men and women in uniform in the middle of a domestic political and cultural crisis,” said Representative Mac Thornberry.

His Democratic counterpart and chair of the committee, Adam Smith, said he called on Esper and Milley to testify.

“I remain gravely concerned about President Trump’s seemingly autocratic rule and how it affects the judgment of our military leadership,” he said.

“The fate of our democracy depends on how we navigate this time of crisis.”

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