Just as the White House became an epicenter of the pandemic and congressional negotiations on the ailing economy collapsed, the Pentagon made its own startling announcement on Tuesday. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff—the highest-ranking officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and other services—went into quarantine for two weeks. These are not only commanders who control the world’s mightiest military, run wars, order bombings, and authorize special-operations raids; they are part of the most consistent and sane wing of the American government right now.
The military brass went into isolation after Admiral Charles Ray, the vice-commandant of the Coast Guard, tested positive for covid-19. Mercifully, the Joint Chiefs immediately followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control—unlike others in Washington’s political establishment, particularly the White House. The origin of Ray’s infection was uncertain, but he was at a White House ceremony for Gold Star Families who lost members in war zones—a day after President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which appears to have been a superspreader event. Ray later attended a meeting of the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon’s bunkerlike center known as the Tank, where the most sensitive security issues are discussed and the gravest decisions made. “Out of an abundance of caution, all potential close contacts from these meetings are self-quarantining,” a Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said on Tuesday, in a statement. The Marine Corps announced late on Wednesday that General Gary Thomas, the assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, had tested positive for covid-19. Thomas, who was present at the Joint Chiefs meeting in the Tank, is the second four-star officer to report being infected this week.
The Joint Chiefs are the highest-ranking members of the military to be impacted by the pandemic, but far from the only ones. As of Wednesday morning, almost seventy thousand members or employees of the military—who put their lives at risk daily to protect the country—have been infected, the Pentagon reported on a special Web site about covid-19. Almost forty per cent of the two hundred and thirty-one U.S. military installations around the world still face travel restrictions because of the pandemic. From multiple angles, including the fact that President Trump is also the Commander-in-Chief, the coronavirus is now a genuine national-security threat for the United States. And the rest of the world knows it. The potential dangers abound.
“This President’s failure to manage the covid-19 pandemic effectively, his failure to reduce the dire economic impacts, and his propensity to inflame rather than heal the deep divisions in this country have all contributed to a perception, among allies and adversaries alike, of an America that is in crisis, if not decline,” Michèle Flournoy, the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told me. “This perception increases the risk that our competitors may seek to take advantage of this moment to make mischief abroad. Couple that with the election and we are looking at a period of extreme uncertainty.”
So far, none of the Joint Chiefs in quarantine has tested positive, the Pentagon said on Tuesday. Each officer also has access to fully secure communications in his place of isolation. General Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman and the principal military adviser to the President, lives on “Generals Row” at Fort Myer, an Army base in Arlington, Virginia, that overlooks the Potomac River and Washington, D.C. Yet isolation still complicates the joint-ness of the Joint Chiefs. Being quarantined in quarters with a suite of communication is not the same as being in the Situation Room or the National Military Command Center with immediate access to other leadership.
The broader danger is the world’s perception now of America as inept and vulnerable, Doug Lute, a retired lieutenant general who was the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs and a deputy national-security adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told me. “There are two things that would drive our competitors—the general sense of incompetence by the executive branch and a reading that we are totally self-absorbed internally,” he said. “There’s an overlapping of the pandemic, the protests, and now the election that amplifies that image. In broad terms, those conditions internally will be viewed by external competitors as opportunities.” America faces threats from a spectrum of overseas adversaries, the retired Marine General John Allen, who is now the president of the Brookings Institution, told me. “I’m deeply concerned that there will be foreign actors, all the way from jihadists to state actors, that try to take advantage of a level of duress that we haven’t seen for a long time. It has not been lost on our adversaries, or those who would seek to gain ground, that the United States has consciously chosen to withdraw.” The sense of “sheer confusion” surrounding American politics in 2020 compounds the temptation of foreign actors to make moves, either for their own gains or to diminish America, Allen said.
The most obvious perils are from the big powers, which may calculate that the White House will not counter their moves elsewhere in the world during such domestic turbulence, especially on the eve of an election, former military and Pentagon officials told me. From Russia, President Vladimir Putin could dig deeper into Ukraine, meddle in unstable Belarus, or test the strength of the Baltic states to resist. From China, President Xi Jinping could further threaten Taiwan, exert its claim to islands in the South China Sea by deploying equipment or personnel, or take more draconian actions in Hong Kong. Both countries have moved steadily to deepen their presence and influence across Asia and deep into the Middle East—with its access to the Mediterranean and the West. For Moscow and Beijing, overt challenges would be a big bet, especially with an erratic and sometimes reckless President (currently on steroids) in the White House. Yet both countries will also understand that the American public has little appetite for more trauma, the military and security officials said. “I’m sure that foreign adversaries’ intelligence services have their collection systems turned up high so that they understand exactly how disruptive this pandemic is on our national-security structure,” the former C.I.A. director John Brennan said on CNN this week.
North Korea and Iran may also try to exploit the moment, although both have fewer capabilities than Russia or China. Tehran is still smarting from the U.S. assassination, in January, of General Qassem Suleimani, the head of its élite Quds Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guards, which supports several militias that have attacked U.S. troops in Iraq and Lebanon. “I suspect Iran is not done seeking revenge for the killing of Suleimani,” Lute told me. Tehran’s strength is in the proxy forces it arms, aids, and often directs across the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Since Suleimani’s death, attacks by the Popular Mobilization Forces on U.S. troops and the American Embassy in Iraq have steadily escalated; the P.M.F., backed and sometimes directed by Iran, is the umbrella for some sixty predominantly Shiite militias that operate in separate brigades. Last month, the campaign sparked a diplomatic crisis when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Iraqi government that the United States would close its Embassy in Baghdad—one of the largest American diplomatic facilities in the world—if the government did not prevent the militias from firing on the U.S. compound and American troops based elsewhere in Iraq. “Our global deterrence at the high end—nuclear and conventional deterrence in Europe, Asia, and the Gulf—will not be tested,” Lute said. “But there may be challenges at lower levels through cyber or by proxies.”
The danger for the military is also strategic. Under Trump, the Pentagon has faced abrupt whipsaws on policy, planning, and strategic goals. Trump has announced major decisions against the advice of the military brass and sometimes without the methodical reviews usually associated with the military. During a three-year period, the President has threatened war with North Korea; embraced its mercurial leader, Kim Jong Un; held three summits with him; travelled to North Korea; and cancelled a fourth summit—and still has accomplished nothing, with Pyongyang continuing to make more bombs and missiles.
Trump has been erratic on other hot spots. In April and December, 2018, and in October, 2019, he announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria; hundreds are still there in October, 2020. He has pledged to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by next May, whatever the state of the current peace talks, the stability of the government, or the level of violence by the Taliban. U.S. military officials caution that “conditions” may necessitate a U.S. military presence after May—maybe even long after May.
The uncertainty surrounding national security has been compounded, a former senior official told me, by the sense in Washington that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is essentially awol because he has been so sidelined by the White House. His standing—or inclusion—impacts the Pentagon’s influence with the President. The Joint Chiefs are due to end their quarantine and return to their offices well before the election. But the United States faces an uncertain and potentially troubled period between November 3rd and January 20th. The pandemic’s reach deep into the White House, Congress, and now the Pentagon led Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of Defense and C.I.A. director, to warn on NPR, on Tuesday, that the scope of the pandemic’s spread in the capital of the most powerful nation in the world “sends a signal to our adversaries that we are in a vulnerable state.”
More on the Coronavirus
- To protect American lives and revive the economy, Donald Trump and Jared Kushner should listen to Anthony Fauci rather than trash him.
- We should look to students to conceive of appropriate school-reopening plans. It is not too late to ask what they really want.
- A pregnant pediatrician on what children need during the crisis.
- Trump is helping tycoons who have donated to his reëlection campaign exploit the pandemic to maximize profits.
- Meet the high-finance mogul in charge of our economic recovery.
- The coronavirus is likely to reshape architecture. What kinds of space are we willing to live and work in now?
Robin Wright has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”More: