Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” He provided input informally to the Biden campaign on issues of national security. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion at CNN.
Senator Marco Rubio called him “treasonous.” Senator Rand Paul called for his immediate court-martial. Not to be left out of the discussion, former President Donald Trump called the man he appointed as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, “a dumb-ass” who was “weak and ineffective.”
These and other Republicans were fuming over a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, “Peril,” detailing Milley’s actions, which were reported by CNN and others on Tuesday ahead of the book’s release next week. It apparently describes how, during the turbulent final days of Trump’s presidency, Milley had reassured China that the United States was not going to suddenly and recklessly start a war.
The cries of outrage have been hyperbolic, vitriolic. But Milley is emphatically not a traitor. His actions also don’t rise to the level of heroics, as some on the left are proclaiming. Rather, I’d say the Chairman was acting rightly on intelligence that America’s adversaries and friends were extremely concerned about the violent turmoil surrounding the presidential transition – and the uncertainty about what Trump might do before leaving office.
Given that the former president had already made worrisome comments about summarily pulling US forces out of various areas around the world, and given media reports of Trump’s earlier threats to attack other nations, Milley found it necessary to communicate directly with his counterparts overseas, with whom he had a professional relationship.
He was right to do so, because he was reacting to the realities on the ground. Straight talk with our allies and partners, lowering the temperature when tensions are rising, is critical to avoiding misunderstandings and perhaps deadly unintentional consequences. America’s generals and admirals around the world work hard to build relationships with their partners and foes for exactly this reason. They have sometimes been called “diplomats in khaki.”
Milley’s contacting foreign general officers, like General Li Zuicheng of China, is a big part of his job. In these communications, I’m confident that the Chairman followed the protocols for engagement with foreign officials.
Why do I believe that? Because as a senior general officer commanding in a foreign theater, I often had to conduct these types of phone calls and engagements, as do all generals or admirals in similar strategic circumstances.
Engaging with foreign military commanders – whether they are allies, partners, friends or even foes – is a major and extremely time-consuming requirement for senior military commanders. We do this to strengthen alliances, build trust, prepare for coalition exercises – and to stay in contact via informal communication channels during tense times.
When I was Commander of the US Army in Europe, there were 51 countries in our area of responsibility, and my visits and contacts were conducted as part of an approved plan for “security cooperation” within that theater. Chairman Milley’s job is much bigger and more difficult, because his covers the globe.
His responsibilities require an endless series of engagements with US Embassies, foreign governments, and the military leadership of more than 190 countries, even those, like China, whom many Americans consider the enemy.
Often the communication channels with foes compliment the diplomacy generated by the State Department, and this is where generals and ambassadors are critical teammates.
These calls and visits are always based on intelligence collection. I cannot remember a time when I “cold-called” a commander of a foreign army just to check on how he was doing. Usually, a call would be based on information from an intelligence report that had been analyzed and presented to me for consideration by those on the staff.
While I had various intelligence feeds in Europe passing me this information, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has many, many more. His own staff, the staffs of the Army, Air Force and Navy and Marines, the Central Intelligence and Defense Intelligence Agencies, the National Security Agency and the Embassy Country Teams all generate information that turns to actionable intelligence. That is usually handled at various levels, but the relationships that the Chairman builds during his extensive travels sometimes require him to make that call or contact.
What does the protocol require? When I made a call to a foreign counterpart, I was never alone in the room. From interpreters to country team experts to notetakers and various staff members, sometimes it was hard to limit who listened in. Whenever I talked to a foreign commander, I always had on the call my Political Advisor, assigned by the State Department as a liaison to my command, and I also usually required a Judge Advocate General representative well-versed in international law.
While some may believe Milley went “rogue” in his phone call, I am sure there were many critical staff members and representatives from other agencies in the room where this happened. CNN reported Thursday that “there were 15 people on both videoconference calls Milley held with his Chinese counterpart, the one on October 30 and another on January 8 – including a representative from the State Department, according to one defense official. The read-out and notes from the calls were shared with the intelligence community and the interagency, the official said.
These actions are part of the Chairman’s job, they are driven by intelligence, and they follow protocol. Those wanting the Chairman to resign because they perceived he had aided or abetted the “enemy,” or those who are prone to call his actions treasonous, need to understand how these actions work, how they are extremely beneficial to the security of the United States, and how doing so is truly tied to the responsibility associated with the Chairman’s position.