Preventing war: Why Gen. Mark Milley's secret calls to China deserve a medal

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Those calling for the head of Mark Milley have it all wrong. The four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may well have saved American lives by thwarting a deadly Chinese miscalculation in the closing weeks of the Trump administration.

Milley spoke twice with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, during this period, according to "Peril," a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post.

Both times, it was to caution Li not to make a terrible mistake.

China claims control of 80% of the South China Sea, something the United States and other nations reject. The result is that American naval forces conduct fleet exercises in those waters or sail through to demonstrate freedom of navigation rights.

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The Chinese hate this, complain bitterly and yet accept these are not acts of war.

But what if one day they concluded otherwise? What if they decided, because of a wider-ranging series of extreme circumstances, that a U.S. destroyer steaming into the sea was this time part of some coordinated attack. They would believe that every second they failed to act only compounded the hazard to Chinese lives.

They might sink it. The United States would be compelled to respond in equal or greater measure. China might then do the same, and where would the violence end? Might there be war?

According to "Peril," the Chinese had intelligence in October that the United States was planning such an attack. At the same time, President Donald Trump was engaging in ever more belligerent rhetoric toward China.

That's when Milley made his first call to Li, with whom he had a long working relationship, assuring him four days before the election that no U.S. attack was coming.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on Capitol Hill on June 23, 2021.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on Capitol Hill on June 23, 2021.

The second call was two days after Trump provoked a mob into storming the U.S. Capitol to stop Congress from performing its constitutional duty of officially declaring Joe Biden the next president of the United States.

Milley calmed Chinese fears of conflict

Is it any surprise Li and his officers were distressed by the sight of Trump supporters driving lawmakers from Congress? That kind of usurpation of government, even if for only a matter of hours, had never happened in the United States and is inconceivable in totalitarian regimes such as Beijing.

How could the Chinese not worry what a desperate Trump might do next?

As with the October call, Milley would have been remiss not to prevent a disastrous Chinese error. “We are 100 percent steady. ... Democracy can be sloppy sometimes," Milley assured Li, according to the book.

"From all I can see today," says James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and a former NATO Supreme Allied commander, "Milley's actions were within his remit to maintain open lines of communication with friends and foes alike, avoid potential miscalculation, and maintain military-to-military stability during a very tense period."

Perspective needed on other actions

Much has been made of two other Milley actions.

There have been calls for his resignation over a comment the book says Milley made to Li during the October phone call: “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”

Treason, some say, even if the United States has a history of giving adversaries a heads up before an attack, as in Syria in 2017. Whether this was a questionable throwaway line to diffuse tension, or something more imprudent, Milley can explain when he testifies Sept. 28 before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He has also come under fire for reportedly inserting himself in any decision process should Trump direct a nuclear strike. Critics call this an unconstitutional attenuation of presidential control, though then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger did the same thing in 1974 when President Richard Nixon faced impeachment.

Many say it would have been better, rather than making phone calls to Li or discussing nuclear codes, if Milley had resigned and alerted the public about how unstable and dangerous he believed Trump was. That would have certainly been a profound move. But it would have stripped Milley of the ability as the nation's top military officer to intervene and diffuse a potentially lethal miscalculation in the South China Sea.

The general has plenty of things to answer for when he testifies next week, not the least of which is his disastrous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

But preventing war with China is not one of them.

Gregg Zoroya is an editorial writer for USA TODAY and author of "The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan." Follow him on Twitter: @greggzoroya

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stopping Trump: Gen. Mark Milley may have prevented a war with China