The Pentagon’s slow drift into the political mudslinging of Washington may be accelerating under President Biden, with the military’s unusually aggressive attack on a conservative Fox News critic sparking a backlash from conservatives on Capitol Hill and threatening to drag the Defense Department into a broader culture war.
Retired officers and defense analysts say the Pentagon’s decision to go toe-to-toe with Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week has created an entirely avoidable political controversy — the kind of controversy that the military has traditionally tried to float above, no matter which party controls the White House.
It’s the latest episode in the Defense Department’s struggle to be seen as nonpartisan, apolitical, and impartial in the most heated political debates raging across the country.
That struggle had seemingly reached its apex last year amid a public fight between then-President Trump and military leaders over whether the armed forces should be enlisted to stop racial justice protests that had turned violent in some cities. Heading into the divisive November presidential election, Pentagon leaders also went out of their way to assure the American people that the armed forces would not be politicized, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley even publicly promising that the military wouldn’t help decide the winner of the presidential election.
But any hopes that passions would subside with Mr. Trump gone and President Biden’s team in place are quickly dissipating.
Just weeks into Mr. Biden’s term, the Carlson vs. Pentagon battle — which centers on the Fox News host’s contention that the U.S. military may be losing its “masculine” fighting edge amid a push to be more inclusive and accommodating to women and other groups — has pulled the military directly into the political morass.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, sent a letter Sunday night to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin questioning whether the Pentagon had engaged in a concerted, politically motivated attack on Mr. Carlson. Mr. Cruz’s fiery letter suggests that some outspoken conservatives in Congress could take an aggressive posture toward the Biden administration’s political appointees at the Pentagon, particularly on cultural and social issues.
Specialists say the entire episode would have faded away if officials hadn’t made the conscious decision to engage a conservative TV personality in a public debate.
“Usually the response in the past has been, ‘I’m not going to comment,’” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Is there a policy issue here that warrants talking about?” he said, referring to internal discussions among military officials about whether to respond to a news story or controversial statement. “When the answer comes back, ‘No, this is just Washington D.C. gossip, or just an opinion,’ then public affairs professionals know that you draw more attention to an issue by responding to it. By taking this issue and adding a little bit of gasoline to it, the Pentagon made more of this than it deserved.”
The controversy comes against the backdrop of an anti-extremism initiative inside the armed forces by new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that some critics warn could inadvertently target conservatives whose views may be considered “extreme” by their ideological opposites on the political left.
Top military officials vehemently deny that characterization and say that the effort is aimed only at identifying service members who actively participate in White supremacist and other hate groups, and those who may take part in anti-government attacks like the Jan. 6 Capitol assault.
“This is not about, you know, political parties or political beliefs,” Mr. Austin told ABC News during a March 7 interview.
As a general matter, Pentagon officials also steadfastly maintain that the military will not be drawn into domestic politics.
Mr. Carlson’s commentary framed U.S. military policies against the backdrop of America’s great-power competition with China. His remarks came amid news that China now boasts the world’s largest navy.
Political correctness, Mr. Carlson argued, was trumping military readiness among U.S. commanders.
“So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits. Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military,” he said during the segment last week. “While China’s military becomes more masculine as it’s assembled the world’s largest navy, our military needs to become, as Joe Biden says, more feminine — whatever ‘feminine’ means anymore, since men and women no longer exist.”
The reaction from the Pentagon and from senior military officials stationed around the world was striking. Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said there was a sense of “revulsion” inside the Defense Department.
“What we absolutely won’t do is take personnel advice from a talk show host or the Chinese military,” Mr. Kirby told reporters last week.
Other top military officials also pushed back hard on Mr. Carlson’s comments.
Sgt. Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the service’s most senior enlisted soldier, wrote on his own official Twitter account that women will dominate any battlefield of the future.
“Tucker Carlson’s words are divisive [and] don’t reflect our values,” he wrote.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, commander of Fort Benning, posted a video to Twitter that showed him conducting a reenlistment ceremony for a female soldier.
“Just a reminder that Tucker Carlson couldn’t be more wrong,” he said.
A host of other service members and military officials expressed similar sentiments in what became a rare public condemnation of a television host.
Mr. Cruz said those attacks have drowned out an important debate about whether gender-based reforms in the military are eroding America’s battlefield advantage.
“Whatever one thinks of the merits of the argument — and I believe there is much to be said against the use of the military for social experimentation, including for those reasons — those are broadly held concerns that have been the fodder of political controversy and debate for decades,” he wrote in his letter to Mr. Austin. “Instead of allowing the debate to take its course in public among American citizens and their elected leaders, military officials over the last week have repeatedly launched attacks on Carlson, including through official [Defense Department] platforms and accounts and while in uniform.”
“The campaign has alternated between being ostentatiously childish and simply outrageous,” he said, asking that military officials meet with him in person to discuss the effort.
Pentagon officials would not comment directly on Mr. Cruz’s letter, saying they will respond to the lawmaker privately.
Meanwhile, specialists say the incident also underscores the potential pitfalls of the Pentagon’s longstanding push to have officials and commanders around the world speak out on social media. Last week, for example, the official Twitter account for the II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group described Mr. Carlson as a “boomer” and made other comments that the group ultimately had to walk away from.
“We are human and what was intended as a tweet in support of our female Marines and sisters serving in uniform was clearly not aligned with our standard practices or an appropriate representation of the Marine Corps,” the group tweeted Saturday.
“That’s the price you pay for asking everybody to be a communicator,” he said.
⦁ Mike Glenn contributed to this report.
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