Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen Plays Partisan Politics

Chairmain of Joint Chiefs of Staff should stay out of politics.


It is astonishing how the temperature in Washington, D.C. drops the instant Congress leaves town. Having wasted the nation's time for weeks on a divisive partisan issue of its own making, known to readers as "raising the debt ceiling," it has returned to what it does best: it is once again on "break."

When it returns to town, Congress and the president should tend to some important remaining business. In the midst of Congress's frenetic attempt to beat the clock (otherwise known as the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling), Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chose to intrude himself into a domestic partisan controversy. He told reporters that, on a recent visit to Afghanistan, soldiers asked him whether they would get paid in the event that the government defaulted on its debt obligations. Mullen related that he told them that he "honestly can't answer that question." [Check out the new U.S. News Weekly iPad app.]

Not since General Douglas MacArthur, who wrote Republican House Speaker Joseph Martin to complain about how President Harry Truman was waging war in Korea, has a man in uniform so openly interjected himself in partisan politics. MacArthur, of course, was relieved of his command for undermining his commander in chief, whose orders he eventually disobeyed. Mullen was taking advantage of his standing as the president's principal military adviser to do his commander in chief's bidding, not on the battlefield, but in Congress. He too should be held to account. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]

Within minutes of Mullen's announcement, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was on the Senate floor citing Mullen as an authority on how irresponsible Republicans can be. The leader said:

As the clock ticks down to Aug. duty military personnel—including many who are risking their lives for our great nation—worry whether they will receive their paychecks.

The Associated Press reported that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited with troops serving in Afghanistan . And the soldiers Admiral Mullen talked to weren't asking about military strategy or how a troop drawdown in Afghanistan would affect them. 

They asked whether they would get paid if Republicans force the U.S. government to stop paying its bills.

In a region that has been wracked by violence and plagued by suicide bombers this month, they wondered how they would take care of their families if their checks stopped coming next month.

Let me read you a little bit of that Associated Press story.

A half a world away from the Capitol Hill deadlock, the economy and debt crisis are weighing heavily on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

And the top question on their minds Saturday even as bombings rocked the city around them, was one the top U.S. military officer couldn't answer.

'Will we get paid?'

Admiral Mullen told them he didn't know the answer to their question, but that either way those soldiers must continue to work every day.

Mullen had to have known how his words would be used. Why else would he have uttered them?

This was not an instance where the press attended a town meeting of the admiral before his troops. The question he received about soldiers getting paid was the only one he saw fit to report. Mullen also had to have known that once made public, his comments would raise anxieties of soldiers around the world, who had not asked him about their pay. Why would he choose so callous a way to alarm their families?

This was not the first time Mullen intruded himself into a partisan fight in order to get on the good side of the administration temporarily in power. During last year's debate over the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," Mullen argued in favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Eloquent though it was, his statement should have raised two concerns among his listeners. The first was that he is not paid to give his personal opinions. The second and more troubling is that if he was truly "troubled" over a policy that forced "young men and women to lie about who they were in order to defend their fellow citizens," why had he not raised his voice during all the years he served under administrations that implemented and retained the policy he found so reprehensible? The entire question, he said, came down to "integrity." A chairman who exuded that quality might have resigned rather than enforce a policy that violated the dictates of his conscience. That would have earned him a place of honor on the pages of history. It would also have hastened the demise of the policy he says he opposed. [See a collection of political cartoons on "don't ask, don't tell".]

President Obama fancies himself an expert on the Constitution. Surely, he recognizes the breach of custom, ethics, and, yes, "integrity" his departing Joint Chiefs chairman has done on his commander in chief's behalf. It would be too much, however, to expect a Chicago politician to relieve from command a member of his organization who was in his own mind trying to be helpful.

I have a better idea. When Mullen steps down at the change of command ceremony next month, instead of pinning a medal on him, Obama should fasten a 14-karat donkey pin on the admiral's chest. He has certainly earned it.

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