For decades, the U.S. Republican Party had an effective claim of ownership over its country’s military affairs. The Republican President Ronald Reagan took a hard line against the Soviet Union and helped end the Cold War in the 1980s, while his successor George H.W. Bush presided over the first Gulf War in 1991, when the rapid and decisive defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait restored much of the confidence that the U.S. military had lost in Vietnam. If a Democrat wanted to be president, they had more or less to emulate their opposition when it came to national security. Bill Clinton, elected in 1992 as the first Democratic president since 1980, even made the Republican William Cohen his Defense Secretary. By the mid-2000s, an American public disillusioned by seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had soured on military adventurism, but public opinion on the military and its leadership appeared unaffected.

That all began to change with the fractious presidency of Donald Trump, and today, the sanctity of the U.S. military—much like that of the U.S. Supreme Court—is under political attack: With recruitment numbers down, right-wing critics attribute the problem to “woke” social-engineering policies that they see as having weakened America’s most trusted institution. High-profile commentators on the right, such as Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro—along with some of the more conservative members of the U.S. House and Senate—are escalating their criticism of the military and threaten to fracture public perceptions of the Armed Forces for years to come. ​​What’s driving these attacks?

Katherine Kuzminski is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington and the director of its Military, Veterans, and Society Program. Kuzminski says that Trump’s ongoing denunciations of the U.S. military’s leadership have been influential, but they’ve also tapped into an underlying current of populist resentment that will likely continue moving on the American right. To her, these rebukes fundamentally misunderstand the power dynamics at play between enlisted officers and civilian policymakers. Still, if the right’s disenchantment with the U.S. military and its leadership grows, it could find common ground with the elements of the left, in its own populist wing, transforming a once-fringe political tendency into something that destabilizes a long-standing bipartisan consensus on American military policy.

Eric Pfeiffer: How would you summarize the growing criticism of military leadership on the American right?

Katherine Kuzminski: It fits with a pattern you’ll see across the U.S. political spectrum—an idea that, though the general officer corps is supposed to be non-political, non-partisan, and focus on its responsibilities as specified in the United States Code, the general officer corps nevertheless somehow embodies the beliefs of whomever the critic is opposed to.

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