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Civil Military Relations Amid Domestic Crisis

June 18, 2020

Lt.-Gen. David Barno (Ret.), Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies and Senior Fellow, Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

Nora Bensahel, Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies and Senior Fellow of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

Eliot A. Cohen, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

Mara Karlin, Associate Professor of the Practice and Director, Strategic Studies Program; Executive Director, The Merrill Center for Strategic Studies

Brig.-Gen. Paula Thornhill (Ret.), Associate Professor of the Practice and Associate Director of Strategic Studies

Experts worldwide became alarmed on June 1 when President Donald Trump mobilized units of the US military to respond to protests in Washington, DC, and used top military officials for the backdrop of his photo opportunity for which federal law enforcement brutally dispersed peaceful protesters. Several of the school's leading scholars of strategic studies discussed these developments and their implications for longstanding norms and US civil-military relations.
Speakers agreed that the episode was troubling and they were largely reassured to hear Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper publicly and emphatically walk back their involvement. All of the speakers stressed that the military must protect its apolitical relationship with elected officials.
Cohen noted that the underlying issue of presidential power needs to be addressed. Congress for decades has allowed presidents to overreach in their use of military and emergency powers, and the legislative branch must assert limits on such use, he said.
Karlin recommended reading several books for a deeper look at civil-military relations, including the forthcoming book by Barno and Bensahel, "Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime." 
Thornhill pointed out that the voices of military members have been absent from public debate thus far: it is critical to explore the effect of this conflict on the military itself, she said.
Bensahel lamented that the presence of military leaders while force was used to violate the Constitutional rights of peaceful protesters will become an enduring image with repercussions for the way Americans view their military. Barno pointed out that mobilization of military forces in Washington, DC had not happened since 1968. The possibility of further misuse of the military during the ongoing presidential campaign is a deep concern, Barno said. 
The panel also addressed matters of Congressional oversight of the armed forces, the broad yet shallow support Americans commonly hold for their military members, and the working relationship between secretaries of defense and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.