Milley and China — what the Senate really needs to know

Milley and China — what the Senate really needs to know
© Greg Nash

When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Pentagon says almost half of Afghan evacuees at US bases are children Russian fighters escort US bombers over Black Sea MORE testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the end of the month, no doubt it will be standing room only in the Russell Senate Office Building. The revelations in the new book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, as reported in the press, are potential bombshells — if accurate and not taken out of context, distorted or overly dramatized. 

As confirmed, the chairman had two conversations with his Chinese PLA military counterpart, General Li Zuocheng. Allegedly, Milley first called to reassure the general that the U.S. was not preparing for an attack on China no matter what intelligence China may have received. In the second conversation, Milley reportedly said that in the event an American attack was being contemplated, Milley would provide Beijing with advance warning. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reportedly had also spoken with his Chinese opposite number shortly before Milley contacted Li.

While the Senate and/or House must investigate aspects of this story if only to clarify civil-military relations, namely that the chairman is not in the chain of command and has no command authority, there is a more crucial and relevant question both Milley and Austin must be asked to answer. The question is this: While the U.S. military is proficient at winning battles, why is the United States incapable of winning wars? The Afghan debacle is the latest in a long litany of failures dating back to the end of the Korean War.

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Of course, this most important question will be the least likely one to be asked. Returning to the possible scoop of the year, Bob Woodward is an extraordinary reporter able to winkle stories and reactions from presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and generals that virtually no other journalist has been able to duplicate. 

During the second Iraq War, Woodward invited me for a sandwich at his home in Georgetown to talk about the state of the conflict. Perhaps because I was not in government, I had access to several sources of information and intelligence that would prove more accurate and credible than assertions of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. I had been one of the few commentators who did not believe Saddam Hussein possessed those weapons.  

Woodward’s style was to be laidback and then present the interviewee with a piece of shocking or highly sensitive information to provoke a response. The effectiveness was reaffirmed years later when Woodward released several hours of interviews he had taped on the record with then-President TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE.

Almost apologetically, Woodward disclosed knowledge of an issue of which I personally knew only four or five other people were aware. Trying to mask my surprise, I innocently asked Woodward, “How did you learn that?”

His answer was eloquent, simple and all one needed to know. “Because I am a good reporter,” he said. And he is.

Not having read the book, my sense is that Milley’s conversations with his counterpart were not out of the ordinary; were coordinated across the national security community; and were approved or authorized by the defense secretary at the time. Since Milley does not speak Mandarin and Li does not speak English, the conversations would have been translated and transcribed and other people on both sides were on the call. Hence, an investigation should have no difficulty in getting to the facts with minimum ambiguity. If that is not the case, then the Woodward book may actually prove sensational.

In addition to asking Milley and Austin why the nation does so badly at war, why were these calls necessitated in the first place? What led China to conclude that the president was considering an attack? Or was China gaming us? What lessons, if any, should be drawn from this incident? 

If indeed the signals to China were perceived as “clear and present dangers,” what role if any should Congress have in preventing a crisis from occurring or escalating? Given this unprecedented event, suppose a future president were considering a preemptive attack without full consultation within the executive or any with Congress: Would the 25th Amendment on presidential incapacitation or some other legal restraint apply? 

“Peril,” no matter its veracity, raises profound questions. But will any of them be why the nation loses all the wars it starts and what prevents a future president from starting a war on his own accord? The most likely answer is no.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D., is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out in December, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Danger to a Divided Nature and the World at Large.”