President Biden sparked debate over his own adherence to political norms during his speech last week warning of GOP attacks on democracy, when the White House placed two Marines as the backdrop to his very speech. hyped in Philadelphia.
It was not the first time that a president gave a speech in front of soldiers. But as the nation polarizes, even those who think Biden’s imagery wasn’t particularly political say it was the wrong lens.
“It’s – to take a kind of football analogy – it’s a 5-yard penalty. Certainly not a 10- or 15-yard penalty or loss of downs,” said political science professor Peter Feaver. and public policy at Duke University.
During his speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 1, Biden warned that former President Trump and other so-called MAGA Republicans pose a threat to the country.
The White House insisted the speech was an official, not a political address, but Biden invoked his predecessor by name — something he doesn’t often do — and urged Americans to “vote, vote.” , vote !
The speech drew praise from the left and backlash from Republicans. But common ground emerged on two Marines positioned behind him during the speech.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. Army Europe from 2011 to 2012, said on Twitter that he thought Biden’s speech was “well delivered” and “absolutely needed at this time in our history.” However, he said the army should not have been in the background.
“Why is this my opinion? For the same reason I believe: military personnel should not attend political events in uniform; people running for office should not wear uniforms in advertisements/ tout their veteran status in campaigns; active duty personnel should not publicly support candidates,” he added.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also hailed Biden’s speech as “very powerful and important,” adding that it was “late in many ways.”
However, he said if the Marines’ presence was unintentional, then it was “just sloppy.”
“A lot of people in the White House know better. Or should. Either way, there’s just no need to even have it as a concern. It just shouldn’t be done in America.” Rieckhoff tweeted.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the Marines’ presence during the speech.
“The presence of the Marines was intended to demonstrate the President’s deep and abiding respect for these service members, for these ideals and the unique role that our independent military plays in defending our democracy, regardless of the party in power,” he said. said Jean-Pierre said during a briefing on Friday.
“And that’s not abnormal. It is actually normal for presidents on both sides of the aisle to give speeches in front of military personnel,” she added. “It’s not an unusual sight or unusual event that happened.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder did not respond to a question about the Marines during a Tuesday briefing, instead referring to Jean-Pierre’s comments.
The long-standing policy of the Department of Defense is that members of active duty may fulfill the obligations of citizenship but will not “engage in partisan political activities”.
In addition, active duty personnel must “avoid interference that their political activities involve or appear to involve the DoD’s sponsorship, endorsement, or endorsement of any political candidate, campaign, or cause. “.
But the two Marines who stood behind Biden during his speech were following orders, so they themselves did nothing wrong, experts said.
“It certainly breaks with the norms of civil-military relations and puts Marines in a difficult position,” said Katherine Kuzminski, senior researcher and program director for military, veterans, and society at the Center for a New American Security.
“Any member of the service that the Commander-in-Chief asks to do something is going to do it – that’s the foundation of our expectations of the military. But it added a military flavor to events in a way that doesn’t didn’t need to happen and that broke with civil-military standards,” she continued.
Recent presidents, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, have been criticized for using the military as a political backdrop.
Feaver pointed out that the most obvious comparison made on Twitter was a speech Bush gave in 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring an end to major operations in Iraq – commonly referred to as “Mission Accomplished”.
“It was a speech that Democrats in particular didn’t like, and maybe there was an element of politicization,” Feaver said. “But what he was doing was hiring the sailors who had worked on that mission, so that was a bit more legit than just using the wallpaper, which happened on Thursday night.”
Kuzminski pointed out that Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan before an audience of cadets at West Point Military Academy in 2009.
“They were in the audience, they weren’t standing behind the president, and those are the people who will be most directly affected by politics. So while the president was making a broad political statement about the military policies of the country, he was also directing his comments to the people who would be most affected,” she said.
However, concern over the politicization of the military came to a head during Trump’s tenure, particularly after he threatened to use the military to suppress protesters in the summer of 2020.
Trump’s rhetoric has caused tension with military leaders, with his former Defense Secretary James Mattis offering superb public criticism in a statement to The Atlantic.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley apologized in June of that year after appearing alongside Trump in a photo taken outside St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square after federal authorities attacked peaceful protesters.
Early in his term, Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning the entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries during a ceremony at the Pentagon.
“I think most academics would agree that some of the violations were beyond what we’ve normally seen with many presidents in terms of violating democratic norms of civil-military relations,” said science professor Risa Brooks. policies at Marquette University. who specializes in civil-military relations, of the Trump administration.
Growing polarization within American society has exacerbated these concerns about threats to civil-military standards. It’s something eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged in an open letter published in War on the Rocks.
Their letter noted that civilian control of the military is exercised by all three branches of government and that members of the military “swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, not an oath of loyalty to any individual or group.” function “.
“The military accepts limits on the public expression of their private opinions – limits that would be unconstitutional if imposed on other citizens. Military and civilian leaders must be diligent in separating the military from partisan political activity,” they wrote.
Kuzminski of the Center for a New American Security said future presidents would be well advised to take these warnings to heart.
“In the future, I think any president would – it would be incumbent on any president to keep the military out of political speeches or political events and not put them in that position by first place,” she said.
Morgan Chalfant contributed to it.
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