Jun 4, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back World readers for tonight's 1,792-word (7-minute) journey, much of which takes place in and around the Pentagon. New readers can sign up here.

Heads up: I've got two suggestions for your calendar tomorrow, though sadly they overlap.

  • 12:30pm ET: Axios will host a conversation on Black Lives Matter and policymaking with Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson. Register here.
  • 12pm ET: I'm moderating what should be an interesting conversation on Jeffrey Sachs' new book "The Ages of Globalization." Register here.

Now, let's dive in.

1 big thing: The Pentagon vs. the president

Trump visits Mattis and the Pentagon in 2018. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Over the course of just a few hours, President Trump was rebuffed by the Secretary of Defense over his call for troops in the streets and accused by James Mattis, his former Pentagon chief, of trampling the Constitution for political gain.

Why it matters: Current and former leaders of the U.S. military are drawing a line over Trump's demand for a militarized response to the protests and unrest that have swept the country over the killing of George Floyd by police.

The backlash began when protesters and journalists were violently expelled from Lafayette Park so that Trump — flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley — could walk across the square to St. John's church.

  • Esper also drew criticism for urging governors to "dominate the battlespace" if protests turned violent.

The response from former military leaders was swift and harsh, particularly considering their previous reticence to wade into politically charged waters.

  • Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote that Trump had "laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest" and "risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces."
  • Martin Dempsey, another former Joint Chiefs chairman, called Trump's rhetoric "extremely dangerous" and tweeted, "America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy."
  • Other former members of the military’s top brass warned of unprecedented danger to civil-military relations and to the entire “American experiment.”
  • The blow from Mattis landed most forcefully. He invoked the battle against Nazism and accused Trump of violently dispersing righteous protests “for a bizarre photo op ... with military leadership standing alongside.”

The criticism reverberated through the Pentagon, and its leaders began to draw a line.

  • Esper expressed regret over his comments to the governors, claimed he "did not know a photo op was happening" at the church and — in a direct challenge to Trump — said active-duty troops should not be sent into American cities.
  • That infuriated Trump, who has asked for names of potential replacements, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. Sources close to Trump predict that he will sideline Esper, rather than fire him.
  • White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointedly did not offer Esper any public backing on Wednesday, saying only that “should the president lose faith,” he won’t keep it a secret.

Milley, meanwhile, sent a letter to military leaders reiterating their duty to preserve and protect the Constitution, including the freedoms of speech and assembly.

  • In a handwritten addendum, he wrote: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America — we will stay true to that oath and the American people.”
  • Army leadership released a similar letter, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy emphasized the military's duty to protect those who "peaceably assemble" in a tweet.

"It’s important for them to speak with one voice," Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary (2011–2013), tells Axios of the military's leaders.

  • "It's critical at this point that all of them join hands and take a strong position for what’s right, with the hope that that unity can send a message to the president that he ought to back off."
2. "What the Pentagon should be in a moment of crisis"

Milley (R) and Esper (C) on their much-criticized walk. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Panetta says he finds it hard to put himself in Esper's shoes because the presidents under whom he served "would not take advantage of you and your position."

Zoom in: Panetta says Esper and Milley should not have been surprised that Trump would seek to “use a photo op to make a point.”

  • “I've been in that position, where you're caught up in a crisis and everyone says 'let’s do this' and 'let’s do that.' It’s kind of mob rule in the White House."
  • "People start moving and you start to feel that if you don’t move with the mob you’re not part of the team. That may have been what brought them into that situation."
  • “I know Esper well enough to know that it probably impacted his own conscience, as secretary, and his sense of what the Pentagon should be in a moment of crisis.”

Panetta says Esper and Milley were both likely affected by the flood of criticism.

  • "Military leaders inside and outside [the Pentagon] made clear that they had to make the right decision."
  • By doing so, in Panetta’s view, Esper “clearly put his job at risk.”

The bottom line: "Deep down, there’s always a lurking question about if the president does something, or demands something that is wrong, what do you do?"

  • "Most secretaries have been spared that moment because they haven’t experienced a presidency like the one we’re experiencing today."
  • "But with this president, I think everyone at the Pentagon in a leadership position made a decision that it’s better for them to hang together."
3. "All options are on the table"

A demonstration last night near the White House. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty

Driving the news: A White House spokesperson reiterated today that "all options are on the table," including invoking the Insurrection Act to send troops into the street.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, often discussed as a possible defense secretary, wrote a heavily criticized op-ed urging Trump to follow through.

But while protests have continued in Washington and other major cities, there have been fewer scenes of violence and looting as the week has carried on.

  • Trump and his allies argue that's because of the heavy National Guard presence and his threats of overwhelming force.

The latest: It appears those threats will no longer be backed by the 82nd Airborne, which was dispatched to the D.C. area but never entered the capital.

  • Esper has reportedly ordered those troops to return home — though he issued the same order on Wednesday before reversing it after meeting with Trump.
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser has ended Washington's curfew and is calling for the massive presence of National Guard and other federal forces — including some who refuse to identify themselves — to leave the city.
  • The buzz of helicopters has quieted for the moment. A large new fence and street closures are intended to keep protesters away from the White House.

What to watch: If the scene at St. John's church proves the climax of America's current militarized moment, it may be in large part because the military men in the photo —and many outside of it — decided to draw a line.

Go deeper:

4. Africa reacts to George Floyd's death

A mural to George Floyd in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Gordwin Odhiambo/AFP via Getty Images

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has gathered reactions from African thinkers to the killing of George Floyd and the protests sweeping the U.S.

Excerpts, shared with Axios:

  • Eromo Egbejule, a Nigerian journalist, writes: “President Trump’s threats to send the military into the streets are proof of an underlying hypothesis that I’m finding to be resoundingly true across the world; when it comes down to it, leaders will disregard the oaths they took to serve all of the people, and instead choose to preserve regime security over national security.”
  • Jack McBrams, a journalist from Malawi, writes: “The biggest problem now is that the world, especially Africa, has no one to look up to for lessons in democracy.”
  • Tope Templer Olaiya of The Guardian Nigeria writes: “I am hurting because my longheld view is that the United States is a nation admired by all, even by her enemies.”
  • Idris Mohammed, a researcher from Nigeria, writes: “Unfortunately, George Floyd’s death demonstrates just how little the United States cares about Black lives at home and abroad.”
  • Ronald Kato of Africa News writes that he now believes “the militarization” of African police and security forces is due to the fact that many train in the U.S.
  • Mayra de Lassalette, an Angolan journalist, writes: “Can Africans still trust the United States and its institutions in leading the world? If yes, why, and until when?”

Go deeper

5. Global news roundup

Gathering for a socially distanced protest to mark the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, tonight in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

1. Hong Kongers defied an attempt to ban an annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre, 31 years ago.

2. Militias fighting on behalf of Libya’s UN-backed government regained full control today of Tripoli, the capital, per the BBC.

  • Turkey has stepped up its support for the government, while the Pentagon says Russia has sent warplanes in support of warlord Khalifa Haftar.
  • Diplomatic efforts continue toward a ceasefire in the civil war, which has devolved into a proxy fight that also involves the UAE and Egypt.

3. U.S Navy veteran Michael White has been freed after 683 days held in Iran. He was the first American known to be detained by Iran during Trump’s tenure.

4. Three attacks in the span of 48 hours have left at least 50 people dead in Burkina Faso. The country has been battling armed extremist groups since 2017.

5. The Philippines has announced that it no longer plans to terminate a major military pact with the U.S. — at least for now, Axios fellow Camille Elemia reports.

  • The Visiting Forces Agreement — which allows U.S. and Philippine troops to conduct joint exercises and share intelligence — will resume at least for the next six months amid China's continued militarization in the South China Sea.
  • Go deeper: America's oldest military ally in Asia turns toward China
6. What I'm reading: The view from Singapore

A view of Singapore. Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has authored one of the more interesting pieces of analysis I've read from a sitting leader, in Foreign Affairs.

His argument: Southeast Asian countries can't afford to choose between the U.S. and China, and they hope not to be forced to.

Lee arrives there after an examination of the region's fortunes since 1945 and its uncertain future in a climate of superpower competition.

Post-1945, the U.S. made prosperity possible for countries like Singapore through its security umbrella, rules-based system and deep economic engagement, he writes.

Then, in the 1970s, China opened up and developed rapidly, quickly going from "economically inconsequential for the rest of Asia to being the region’s biggest economy."

  • "Still, Pax Americana held, and these radical changes in China’s role took place within its framework. China was not in a position to challenge U.S. preeminence and did not attempt to do so," he writes.
  • That was "the best of both worlds" for the region, which benefited from both the U.S.-led system and access to China's booming economy.

Fast forward: China is gathering political influence to match its economic clout, and the U.S. is reassessing a system many now feel allowed China to rise at America's expense.

  • On the one hand: "The United States must decide whether to view China’s rise as an existential threat and try to hold China back through all available means or to accept China as a major power in its own right."
  • On the other: Chinese President Xi Jinping must decide whether his statement that the Pacific is big enough for both powers will mean peaceful coexistence "with overlapping circles of friends and partners," or "rival spheres of influence."
  • Meanwhile, SE Asian countries hope neither power will seek to punish them for deepening ties with the other.

The bottom line: Lee contends that both countries will continue to wield power in the region for some time — the question is how.

  • "Any confrontation between these two great powers is unlikely to end as the Cold War did, in one country’s peaceful collapse," he warns.
7. Stories we're watching

Lunchtime, in Beijing. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

  1. Trump to ban Chinese airlines
  2. China outlines ambitious plan for space station
  3. Trudeau's lengthy silence
  4. The slippery slope of protest surveillance
  5. Could America go the way of Rome?
  6. NASA passes the torch
  7. Coronavirus cases jeopardize Japanese baseball's comeback


"Hey guys, I've just re-seeded that!"
— A homeowner in Australia asking Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the press to get off his lawn. Morrison obliged with a thumbs up and "it's all good."
Dave Lawler