Other voices: Blocking military promotions is unpatriotic

19 July 2023

Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville misses few chances to tout both his career as a college football coach and his love for the military. It’s all the more reprehensible, then, that Tuberville is single-handedly blocking the Pentagon from putting its best team on the field — and harming the country’s security in the process.

Since February, Tuberville has placed a blanket hold on the promotion or reassignment of more than 250 U.S. generals and flag officers. He objects to a Pentagon policy, announced after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, that covers the travel costs of service members who cross state lines for abortions. Tuberville insists that because Congress hasn’t enshrined the travel policy into law, the Pentagon needs to scrap it. He’s vowed to block all top military promotions until that happens.

Due to Tuberville’s intransigence, the Marine Corps lacks a Senate-confirmed commandant for the first time in 164 years. Two more service chiefs are due to retire next month; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, the top military adviser to President Joe Biden, will step down on Oct. 1. As seven former defense secretaries noted in a May letter, the commanders of the Navy’s Fifth and Seventh Fleets — covering the Middle East and Indo-Pacific — as well as the next US military representative to NATO and US Cyber Command’s director of intelligence are also in limbo. More than 600 senior officers may be affected by the end of the year.

This leadership void is already damaging military readiness. Officers serving in an acting capacity don’t have the same authority they would if Senate-confirmed: Incoming Marine commandant General Eric Smith, for instance, can’t issue crucial planning guidance for the service. Uncertainty takes a toll on military families, who can’t relocate or receive new salaries until appointments are official.

Air Force General C.Q. Brown, Biden’s nominee to replace Milley, told lawmakers this week that the promotion backlog will make it harder to persuade junior officers to remain in uniform — something the U.S. can ill afford amid recruiting shortfalls. It could also slow efforts to retool the military to deter China and roll back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Perhaps most unforgivably, by targeting uniformed officers rather than political appointees, Tuberville risks dragging the U.S. military into the country’s partisan muck. Tuberville maintains that the Senate can break the logjam by holding votes on each promotion, rather than accepting them by unanimous consent, as has traditionally been done. That would make a bad situation worse: It would occupy most of the legislative calendar, needlessly politicize the military-promotion process and only encourage more partisan gamesmanship, as has happened with judges and ambassadors, among other positions.

If Tuberville thinks that the Pentagon’s abortion policies are better determined by Congress, he should be focused on the hard work of legislating, not obstructing. A vote on the House version of the annual defense spending bill, which now includes an amendment rescinding the policy, will test how much support there is for his position.

This is a problem for Republicans, not the Pentagon, to solve. Thus far, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has only chided Tuberville obliquely. He needs to go further. He should insist, in private and public if necessary, that the Alabama senator back down and lift his holds without delay. Tuberville may know football, but he has no right to play with the nation’s security.

— The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board

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