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‘We Can Think of Few Things as Irresponsible’: 7 Former Defense Secretaries Blast Hold on Military Promotions

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Seven former defense secretaries who served in administrations from both parties are warning that a Republican senator’s hold on nearly 200 military promotions hurts military families and emboldens U.S. adversaries.

“There are also real-world impacts on the families of these senior officers,” the former defense secretaries wrote in a letter released Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Most cannot move and resettle their families; their children cannot enroll at their next schools on time; and spouses cannot start new jobs at the next duty station. We can think of few things as irresponsible and uncaring as harming the families of those who serve our nation in uniform.”

The message is similar to ones current defense officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have issued in recent weeks. But the letter, which was addressed to Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., raises the pressure on the senator at the center of the controversy, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., by bringing in voices from both Republican and Democratic administrations. In releasing the letter, Schumer said he hopes it encourages other Senate Republicans to push Tuberville to “drop these reckless holds.”

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The letter, which does not mention Tuberville by name, was signed by Trump administration Defense Secretaries Jim Mattis and Mark Esper; Obama administration Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates, who was also defense secretary under President George W. Bush; and Clinton administration Defense Secretaries William Cohen and William Perry.

Tuberville has been delaying Senate confirmations of promotions for all one-star generals and admirals and above over his objection to the Pentagon’s decision to cover travel and leave for service members seeking abortions and other reproductive health care. Tuberville’s hold, as the procedural mechanism he is using is known, applies right now to 196 nominees, a number that has steadily grown since he first announced the hold in February.

Tuberville has suggested he could lift his hold if he is granted a vote on the Pentagon’s abortion policies, but there have been no signs the standoff will end soon.

Tuberville’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Military.com about the letter from the former defense secretaries, but he has previously rejected arguments that his hold harms the military, in part by suggesting the military has too many generals and admirals.

Tuberville has also insisted current officers will stay in their posts until their replacements are confirmed, but military officials pushed back on that argument this week too.

“One of our expeditionary forces, about 45,000 Marines, has a three-star and a one-star. That three-star will retire this summer,” Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the Marines, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “Long service, suffered a family tragedy as well, so he will retire. That will leave that expeditionary force with a one-star…So that’s a significant amount of supervision and experience that is no longer focused where it should be on our most precious asset, the Marines in those Marine expeditionary units. That’s just a small anecdote, but that is not a one-off.”

In their letter, the former defense secretaries point to several key positions awaiting confirmation, including new commanders for the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Middle East and U.S. 7th Fleet in the Pacific, the new U.S. military representative to the NATO Military Committee, and the next director of intelligence at U.S. Cyber Command. They also highlighted the expected nomination of a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff later this year.

“Leaving these and many other senior positions in doubt at a time of enormous geopolitical uncertainty sends the wrong message to our adversaries and could weaken our deterrence,” the former secretaries wrote.

While the secretaries acknowledged senators can have “sincere and legitimate” concerns about Pentagon policies, they encouraged lawmakers to use other means to voice their objections, such as at hearings and in the annual defense policy bill.

“We believe placing a hold on all uniformed nominees risks turning military officers into political pawns, holding them responsible for a policy decision made by their civilian leaders,” they wrote. “We, therefore, strongly urge the Senate to ensure the continued readiness of the U.S. armed forces by lifting the blanket hold and promptly voting to confirm these uniformed nominees.”

— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: There Are Too Many Generals and Admirals, a Senator Stalling Military Promotions Argues

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