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Trump's final days try to turn the military into a political pawn

The Pentagon is not a happy place these days. The military has been dragged into political quarrels not of its making. Those include President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as well as his determination to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany — and, who knows, perhaps South Korea — regardless of military advice and the tactical situation on the ground in each of those places. 

Worst of all, Trump has not denied that he is giving serious consideration to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s mad proposal to invoke martial law in order to overturn election results in battleground states where President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE was the clear winner. That numerous workers in the five-sided building have contracted COVID-19 has hardly helped morale, either.

The president gave four reasons for vetoing the NDAA. A veto, he tweeted, “will make China very unhappy,” without explaining why that was the case. He went on: “Must have Section 230 termination, protect our National Monuments and allow for removal of military from far away, and very unappreciative, lands.” Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects social media companies; they have incurred the president’s wrath for adding warnings to some of his assertions about his loss to Biden. The so-called National Monuments are military bases named after Confederate generals, whose renaming Trump opposes. And Trump opposes the bill’s restrictions on his ability to withdraw overseas military forces, especially those based in Germany.

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Congress is likely to override the president’s veto of the military authorization bill, in part because it includes the pay tables that set military salaries for the coming fiscal year. It is for that reason — paying the military — that NDAAs have passed in timely fashion for each of the past 59 years. But an override is not guaranteed; Trump supporters in the House could team up with other members who have called for a 10 percent cut in defense spending to block the override. The NDAA then would be a dead letter.

Should that be the case, the Biden administration certainly will oppose efforts to use the NDAA as a vehicle for repealing Section 230. It likewise will oppose efforts to withdraw troops from Germany or, for that matter, from South Korea; and it will revisit the speed with which forces in Iraq and Afghanistan should be brought home. Finally, whereas the NDAA calls for a commission to review the question of bases named for Confederate officers, Biden could simply order that the bases be renamed immediately. 

On the other hand, apart from incorporating pay tables and a few other elements of the NDAA, it may be exceedingly difficult to reconstruct all parts of the massive bill once the Biden administration takes office. There simply are too many provisions that were the subject of difficult negotiations that will have to wait another year. The military certainly would be the worse off as a result.

As uncertain as the NDAA’s fortunes might be, uncertainty about the president’s actions in his final weeks in office is of even greater concern to the Defense Department in general and the uniformed services in particular. There is little doubt, as Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyVice News promotes Micheal Learmonth to editor-in-chief Trump appointee endorses Christine Wormuth as Army secretary Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech MORE and Army Chief of Staff James McConville recently made clear, that the military simply will not follow illegal orders, such as the imposition of martial law as suggested by the retired Flynn. Nevertheless, Trump could choose to invoke the Insurrection Act, or issue some other order that is less clearly illegal but that would put the military on America’s streets. The only recourse the Pentagon might then have is to stall while the inevitable legal challenges to Trump’s orders make their way through a court system that itself might tarry until 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 20. 

Nearly six decades ago, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey wrote a best-selling thriller, “Seven Days in May,” about an attempted coup by the American military. Today, however, it is the military that is a critical bulwark of American democracy and civilian control as the Trump era winds down to its final days, with increasingly irrational suggestions and accusations being made by some of its supporters.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.