Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. 150+ retired military officers sign letter questioning election results, call Biden admin “dictatorial”
2. The Colonial Pipeline shutdown is bad news for Germany and Nord Stream 2
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150+ retired military officers sign letter questioning election results, call Biden admin “dictatorial”
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, a New Hampshire 2022 GOP Senate candidate and one of several notable retired officers to sign the inflammatory “Flag Officers 4 America” letter.
Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo
On Mon., May 10, a group of retired generals and admirals calling themselves “Flag Officers 4 America” published an open letter alleging that the 2020 Election was rigged, among other conspiratorial claims. After a recent update, more than 150 veterans have signed, including GOP Senate candidate Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, Reagan deputy security adviser Vice Adm. John Poindexter of the Iran-Contra Affair, letter organizer Maj. Gen. Joe Arbuckle, and others of note.
The letter makes a number of extreme assertions including:
- America is “in a fight for our survival as a Constitutional Republic” against “supporters of Socialism and Marxism.”
- “Election irregularities” were “ignore[d]” in 2020
- Biden’s “mental and physical condition” is questionable.
- “The Current Administration has launched a full-blown assault on our Constitutional rights in a dictatorial manner” and supports voting rights legislation that would “allow Democrats to forever remain in power.”
- COVID containment measures are “population control.”
Peter Feaver, a leading scholar of civil-military relations, called the letter “an appalling breach of military professionalism and the norms on which democratic civil-military relations depends.” It is certainly a clear departure from what Americans expect of their retired military leadership.
How worried should we be about this letter?
It’s fair to worry, but let’s not go overboard.
First, compared to other open letters from retired officers, this group is smaller and less decorated. The group of about 150 includes just one four-star general (Adm. Jerome Johnson). They pale in comparison to the 700+ officers, 30 four-star generals, and five former defense secretaries who signed onto letters endorsing either Trump or Biden in the 2020 election, or the eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who denounced the Capitol Riot.
Second, most of the officers are long-retired and otherwise unrepresentative. One amateur demographic analysis of the initial group of signers found their average age is 80, all are white, and all are men. This is hardly a group reflective of modern military leadership.
What does this mean for civil-military relations?
“Flag Officers 4 America” is only the latest and most dramatic example of the erosion of a foundational American principle: an apolitical military subject to civilian control
In recent years the military has been using its power to act with more autonomy. High-ranking officers increasingly thwart political decisions that they disagree with. Presidents Obama and Trump both struggled with generals leaking information, resisting their military orders, and publicly pushing for some policies that neither President supported.
Importantly, politicians don’t seem to be resisting this trend, and there’s a simple explanation why: America loves its armed forces. As faith in other elements of the government has plummeted, the military has become one of the few institutions that Americans by and large still support. As of 2020, 72% Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military, compared with 40% for the Supreme Court, 39% for the presidency, and an abysmal 13% for Congress.
With faith in the military far exceeding other institutions, calls for the military to assume an active role in American government are growing more common. As a candidate, Biden suggested that the military remove Trump from the White House if he wouldn't step down himself, causing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley to publicly reject speculation of any military involvement in the transfer of power.
Presidents Biden & Trump both tried to channel this public support by appointing former generals who had served in active duty within the last seven years as their Secretaries of Defense. These appointments required waivers from Congress and represented only the second and third time since the 7-year “cooling-off period” was established that the norm had been broken.
A politicized military sets a dangerous precedent, whether the result is damaging the military’s reputation or, at the more extreme end, the obstruction of a democratically-elected American government. If this letter is a preview of further politicization, the nation may face a serious threat––just not the one the “Flag Officers” are concerned about.
The Colonial Pipeline shutdown is bad news for Germany and Nord Stream 2
Gas pumps are roped off with a tape indicating a lack of gasoline at a gas station in Washington, U.S., May 14, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
The network breach which caused the Colonial Pipeline to shut down has destabilized the American fuel market. Americans started panic buying gasoline, prices spiked to six-year highs, and shortages continue to be widespread. In Washington D.C., nine out of ten gas stations completely ran out of fuel last Friday. The group behind the attack, an Eastern European hacking organization known as DarkSide, has no known ties to any government or intelligence agency. They demanded and received a relatively small ransom of $5 million, but have since announced that they’re shutting down, “due to the pressure from the US.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, construction workers are finalizing another petroleum pipeline, Nord Stream 2. Though controversial since its inception, Germany has justified Nord Stream 2, an addition to the original Nord Stream pipeline linking Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea, as necessary to transition away from nuclear and coal-fired power plants.
With the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline highlighting the vulnerability of petroleum supply chains to sudden shocks, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is facing renewed skepticism. If an Eastern European criminal organization can cripple American gas transportation on the East Coast, what could Putin’s Russia do with control of 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas?
Why did Germany pursue Nord Stream 2 in the first place?
Since its inception, the Nord Stream project has been mired in controversy. The first pipeline was greenlit by Merkel’s predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, shortly before he left office in 2005. Almost immediately after stepping down, Schröder signed a lucrative contract with the Russian state-owned gas company, Gazprom (which is responsible for both Nord Stream pipeline projects), and has been on Russian payrolls ever since. Despite this rather suspect beginning, the Nord Stream project continued on and was inaugurated in 2011.
But this was not enough to sate Germany’s appetite for Russian gas. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, widespread protests against nuclear energy spread across Germany. Giving into the pressure, Merkel announced that she would phase out nuclear power by 2022. With no suitable alternative, Germany turned to burning high-polluting brown coal and increased its reliance on Russian petroleum, leading to the inception of another pipeline, Nord Stream 2, alongside the original.
The German government has continuously defended the Nord Stream projects as mere business deals, but lately they’ve had to defend the pipeline in more overtly political terms. The current German stance is that increasing economic ties to Russia can strengthen Europe’s influence over the country. As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier puts it, “burning bridges [with Russia] is not a sign of strength.”
This approach also aligns with a long-held principle at the heart of Germany’s eastern policy, that of Wandel durch Annäherung, or change through rapprochement. The Germans subscribe to the notion that Russian money is politically neutral, despite the fact that Putin’s allies control Russian industry and the Nord Stream deals have both been with a state-owned company.
Unsurprisingly, many nations have not found these arguments particularly convincing. The Ukrainian and Polish foreign ministers wrote that Russia’s interest in the project is to “strengthen its grip on Europe’s gas supply and untether Ukraine from the rest of Europe,” asserting that the pipeline would provide Putin with “a weapon more menacing and more readily employable than Russia’s nuclear stockpile.” As Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, Nord Stream 2 “is a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.”
Clearly, members of the international community do not share Merkel’s confidence that giving Putin control over an ever-increasing share of Europe’s energy is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill business deal.
Would Putin really shut off the pipeline?
This wouldn’t be the first time.
In 2006 and 2009, the Kremlin cut off fuel to Ukraine and, by extension, much of Europe. Russia has certainly shown no qualms about playing a destabilizing role in Europe's political infrastructure, so intervention into Europe’s energy infrastructure would be par for the course.
After all, Russia’s interests in the pipeline are distinctly political. Nord Stream 2 will expand Russia’s ability to sell natural gas to Europe without transporting it through Ukraine, thereby diminishing Ukraine’s leverage and enabling Putin to freely continue his war of expansion in Eastern Ukraine.
At the same time, Germany will have sacrificed its own leverage over Russia. How can Germany pressure Russia on human rights (or anything else) when Putin can turn off their lights with the flip of a switch?
Why should we care?
The first Nord Stream pipeline was a Russian political project greased with corrupt money. The second will divide European interests, threaten Ukraine, and make Germany even more reliant on an illiberal, anti-Western government controlled by an autocrat.
After the DarkSide hack triggered a serious disruption to the American fuel sector, it may be hard for Americans to consider themselves lucky. $5 million, though, is a small price to pay to regain control of an oil pipeline. With Germany now offering up control of its natural gas sector to Putin with eyes wide open, one can only imagine the sort of ransom he could demand.
A divided, isolated West is among Russia’s primary goals, and they seem to have secured a victory with Nord Stream 2.