The Pentagon, in the three weeks that Joe Biden has been president, has turned the department’s attention from outside threats towards potential threats from inside the military.
Former President Donald Trump’s first military priorities were to rebuild the military, defeat the Islamic State, and focus on the threat from China. For this, he chose retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis as his first defense secretary. Trump’s first military-related executive orders were to rebuild the armed forces and to establish new vetting measures to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the U.S. — which critics panned as a “Muslim ban.”
President Joe Biden, in contrast, while continuing the focus on China, has taken a number of actions to promote social justice inside the Pentagon. His first military-related executive order was to overturn Trump’s transgender policy. Biden chose retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary, the first African American to serve in that position. Austin vowed during his confirmation hearing to rid the military of racists and extremists, directed military leaders to assess sexual assault prevention efforts, and has ordered a department-wide stand-down for commanders to address extremism with troops.
Biden, on his first visit to the Pentagon as president last week, spoke at length about upholding diversity in the military.
The final point I’d like to make today is to give you my personal commitment that this administration — from myself and the Vice President Harris to Secretary Austin on down — is dedicated to ensuring that every single person is treated with dignity and respect. That’s why we moved so quickly to overturn the discriminary — discriminatory ban on transgender service, and why General Austin’s first memo was a directive to take sexual assault in the military seriously. Every single person, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or religious background, deserves to feel safe in the ranks and to have their contributions valued.
The next day after his visit, Vox reported Austin had appointed the department’s first adviser on diversity, Bishop Garrison, who will report directly to Austin.
Austin has also taken a number of steps to advance Biden’s progressive agenda. He directed the Pentagon to consider climate change in all war-game planning, risk assessments, and future defense strategy. He has also directed everyone on a Department of Defense property to wear masks. He also has fired everyone serving on a defense board in order to purge Trump appointed-members.
Biden’s progressive moves at the Pentagon have won accolades from Democrats and progressives. However, they are less likely to be popular with Republicans.
There is little polling to date on Biden’s Pentagon moves, but a recent YouGov poll showed that after Biden’s executive order reversing Trump’s transgender policy, 53 percent of Republicans said they strongly or somewhat opposed transgender people serving in the military.
And there has been widespread criticism from the right on how the Pentagon is going about trying to tackle an alleged extremism problem in the military.
So far, the Pentagon has struggled to define how big a problem extremism is inside the military, and conservatives fear it is a way to target conservatives. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeted that Austin’s 60-day stand was “nothing but a political litmus test”:
Biden’s Defense Secretary ordered a 60 day service-wide stand down to address “extremism” within the US Military. This is nothing but a political litmus test of our brave men & women. It is obscene & dangerous to use soldiers who risk their lives for America as political pawns.
Biden’s Defense Secretary ordered a 60 day service-wide stand down to address “extremism” within the US Military.
This is nothing but a political litmus test of our brave men & women.
It is obscene & dangerous to use soldiers who risk their lives for America as political pawns.
— Lauren Boebert (@laurenboebert) February 4, 2021
Statistics from the FBI show low numbers of members of the military being investigated for extremism last year.
According to NPR, the FBI notified the Department of Defense 143 times of investigations of former and current military members in 2020, and 68 of the times pertained to domestic extremism cases, with the “vast majority” former military and many with unfavorable discharge records. Only one-fourth of those, or about 17, had to do with white nationalism.
Nonetheless, commanders are taking the Biden administration’s orders in earnest — despite the lack of clarity on how to do it.
Breitbart News first reported that commanders at the schoolhouse for Army Special Forces started having conversations with students about extremism two days after Biden’s inauguration — warning them not to affiliate with symbols that could be considered extremist. However, a source told Breitbart News that the symbols included Pepe the Frog, a meme popular among the right, which left soldiers worried about political persecution.
John Cardillo, a former New York Police Department officer and Newsmax show host, has pressed the Pentagon to define “extremism.”
The Pentagon needs to define “extremism.“
Because it sure looks like they are classifying mainstream Republican and conservative organizations as extremist.
— John Cardillo (@johncardillo) January 19, 2021
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), member of the House Armed Services Committee, has also urged the Pentagon to define what “extremism” means.
“When we’re standing down, what message does that send to our adversaries? What is our posture around the world when we’re looking to deter our enemies if they’re looking at us standing down?” he said a February 8 interview with SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Sunday. He added:
I would want to know — and I think other members of the Armed Services Committee want to know, too — is what is the definition of ‘extremism’? We understand when members of the military come in, they go through a security background check to make sure that there’s nothing there that would be of issue in them serving the nation or would put the nation at risk.
But I do not want to see an effort there where this does indeed become political. I want to make sure we understand it. I needs to be transparent. It needs to be thoughtful, and we need to fully understand what are the definitions they’re using. If they do separate somebody, why did they separate them, to understand what was the reasoning behind it, so we can see that it’s not political. … If not, it ends up potentially being the wrong effort and having a very, very chilling effect in the military.
I want to make sure that the folks in the military continue doing a great job serving this nation but also that they continue to have the constitutional rights that they fight for everyday.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who has previously worked for Austin in Central Command, said there have been problems with individuals in the U.S. military since its beginning, but that there is no systemic issue with white supremacy, and he worries the military will try to find evidence to prove there is.
“There are always going to be individuals who come in for purpose of getting military training and going to do something with that training on the outside. But I don’t believe for a minute there’s a problem with white supremacy in the military,” he said.
“These people have basically said, ‘Oh, there is racism, and we need to find it.’ They’ve already concluded, there’s not like even, ‘Let’s assess if there’s a problem.’ They’ve already concluded there’s a problem — they’re going to go find it. So even if it’s not there, they’re going to find it,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said there are a lot of real issues facing the Pentagon — China, Russia, the resurgence of ISIS, and other issues, but the focus on extremism is a waste of time.
“If you’re wasting your time going after a threat that doesn’t exist, you’re wasting our ability to be prepared to deal with real threats,” he added.