Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:
Civilian Control of the Military Is Vital
The New York Times
Joe Biden ran for the White House promising to restore the norms that protect American democracy, which had badly eroded under President Trump. Among the most worrisome is the erosion of the principle that the military should be led by a civilian and those in uniform kept separate from partisan politics.
That’s why it was discordant to see Mr. Biden announce his nomination of a retired Army four-star general who has not been out of the military for seven years, which is the period required by law, to be his secretary of defense. In a speech on Wednesday explaining his choice, Mr. Biden described how he forged a relationship of trust with Gen. Lloyd Austin in Iraq. He described General Austin as loved by members of the armed forces, respected by allies and feared by adversaries.
If confirmed, General Austin would become the first Black man to serve as defense secretary, bringing much-needed diversity to the upper echelons of the Pentagon. The military is one of the most diverse institutions in the country, but its senior leadership (as in many other American institutions) is virtually all white.
Mr. Biden wrote about his decision in The Atlantic, but has offered little to explain why today’s particular circumstances merit asking Congress for a waiver from the federal law that requires a cooling-off period after active miliary service. “There’s a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect,” Mr. Biden said, speaking alongside General Austin. He went on to say that the general should get a waiver because this moment in history calls for it.
General Austin himself expressed strong support for the principle of civilian control of the military. “I come to this role as a civilian leader,” he said. But more than four decades of military service doesn’t fade in four years.
During times of political instability, it is tempting to lean on the steady hand of military leaders who have been trained to float above politics. That’s why Congress voted in 2017 to allow General Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, to serve as Mr. Trump’s secretary of defense, even though he had been out for only four years, the same amount of time that General Austin has been. Congress granted General Mattis a waiver of that requirement because many people, including this editorial board, saw the election of Mr. Trump as an emergency that demanded extraordinary measures. General Mattis was viewed as a check on a chaotic and uninformed president. Before General Mattis, the only retired general to be granted a waiver like that was George Marshall, in 1950.
In 2017, 17 Democratic senators and 150 Democratic representatives voted against granting General Mattis the waiver.
Jack Reed, a Rhode Island senator who served as the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, declared at the time of the Mattis confirmation that “waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation.” He voted in favor of General Mattis but pledged not to support a waiver for future nominees.
Now President-elect Biden is asking Senator Reed to go back on his promise and is putting in a tough spot members of his own party who voted against the Mattis nomination because of the waiver.
It puts General Austin in a tough spot, too. There is much to admire about the retired general, who distinguished himself over a 41-year career in the Army. He’s regarded as an exceptional soldier and a compassionate leader. He oversaw the withdrawal of 150,000 soldiers from Iraq, a monumental logistical feat.
General Austin developed a reputation as a fierce advocate for the physical and mental health of a force that has been cycling continuously through conflict zones for the past 20 years. He also has a vision for how the military must adapt to meet future challenges, which he sketched out during a rare public speech in 2018 to students at Fort Leavenworth’s Lewis and Clark Center. In general, Mr. Biden deserves the chance to pick his team.
But the nomination of General Austin raises a key question: Do Americans want civilian control of the military? If the answer is yes — as it absolutely must be — then nominating another recently retired general to serve in this role continues a worrisome trend.
General Mattis served the nation at a tumultuous time. But what was once a rare exception is fast becoming a rule. The current acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, retired from the Army in 2014 and worked for two years as a defense contractor. If this continues, military brass will soon be jockeying for the top job even before they retire. General Austin’s nomination so soon after the nomination of General Mattis shows that granting a waiver to General Mattis was a mistake.
The justifications that are being used to explain the need for another waiver are telling for how easily they could be applied to future cases. Jen Psaki, incoming White House press secretary for the Biden administration, released a statement on Tuesday that said Mr. Biden believes General Austin is the right leader for “this unique moment — a moment that will require deep experience with every level of the U.S. military.”
What’s unique about the moment isn’t the admittedly formidable military challenges the country faces — which have existed for more than a decade — but rather its domestic challenges. For four years President Trump blurred the lines by placing retired generals in a host of civilian roles and threatening to use troops in American cities. Healthy democracies require a division of labor between military leaders, who are trained to follow orders and win battles, and civilian ones, who are tasked with asking hard questions about why those battles are being fought in the first place.
That’s why mature democracies around the world have civilians serving in that role. A global study of defense ministries from the 1960s to the 2000s found that in democratic countries, active-duty or retired military officers served at the helm in only about 10 percent of the cases, according to Peter White, the author of the study, who is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Auburn University. The path America is on puts the nation in the company of new or transitioning democracies and autocratic countries.
The job of a defense secretary includes presenting the president with a full range of options, including cutting military spending, canceling weapons systems and closing bases. The narrower task of representing the views of the armed forces falls on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The secretary of defense must manage budgets, allocate resources, oversee a sprawling bureaucracy and interface with Congress — inherently political tasks. The ideal secretary of defense has served in the military but not spent an entire career there.
It is true that the transition to a smaller, all-volunteer force has made it far more difficult to find senior civilian leaders with military experience. The fact that so many civilian experts in national security also work for the defense industry makes it even tougher to find appropriate candidates to fill this role. General Austin sits on the board of Raytheon, one of the largest weapons makers in the world. Other people who were reportedly under consideration for the post have similar defense industries ties, raising questions about the revolving door between government and private contractors. (If the Biden administration were to follow the ethics reforms passed during the Obama administration, General Austin would be required to sell his stocks in defense firms and recuse himself from decisions involving Raytheon for two years.)
Whatever happens with General Austin’s nomination, Congress would do well to think more deeply about how to ensure that future secretaries of defense who hail from military backgrounds have truly transitioned to civilian life and are not beholden to the military-industrial complex. The statute requiring a cooling-off period — initially mandated to be 10 years — was written in 1947.
A 2018 report by the National Defense Strategy Commission warned that having military leaders, rather than civilians, making the country’s biggest decisions about war and peace could result in “profound strategic problems.”
“It is critical that D.O.D. — and Congress — reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance,” it read.
Mr. Biden would do well to heed that warning.
Small groups, big danger
Anthony Fauci’s virtual appearance at Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s COVID-19 news conference Monday was more than surprising.
It was a warning.
It was a warning because the nation’s top infectious disease expert and native New Yorker lauded by Cuomo as “America’s doctor” was there to talk about the potential “dark time” ahead. The effect of an expected Thanksgiving surge in infections plus the December holiday season would be peaks “superimposed on each other,” Fauci said. “You have a surge upon a surge.”
He added that things could “really get bad” in the middle of January.
That could mean crowded hospitals, further business restrictions, and more sorrow. And a major cause for that surge, cited by both Fauci and Cuomo, is indoor gatherings of family and friends.
Cuomo said Monday that over 70% of the virus spread is estimated to be coming from “small gatherings.” In Nassau County, tracers are largely finding that’s the reason for the spread. In Suffolk, during the first few weeks of November, the second-most common setting where people reported being exposed was at small gatherings such as social events and family celebrations, according to the Department of Health Services.
Epidemiologists say the origin of a spread can be difficult to determine when the virus is widespread within the community, but top leadership in New York is united in identifying the blinking danger of these small gatherings. “I cannot stress enough the dangers posed by small indoor gatherings,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in a Monday statement. “If we don’t change our behaviors quickly our hospital system will be at risk of being overwhelmed.”
This should not be an issue where behaviors are determined by partisan identity. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released December guidelines for how to control the pandemic, including admonitions on “avoiding nonessential indoor spaces and crowded outdoor settings.” That also included indoor dining, which on Monday Cuomo threatened to further restrict in the coming days: “Indoor venues, where distancing is not maintained and consistent use of face masks is not possible … have been identified as particularly high-risk scenarios.”
Monday’s message was the direct opposite of the stupid defiance by the operators of a Staten Island bar who were determined to jam crowds into the establishment. When confronted by New York City sheriffs on Saturday, Danny Presti of Mac’s Public House is alleged to have rammed his car into one of the deputy sheriffs, carrying him 300 feet and breaking both of his legs.
Certainly, small businesses need to be financially supported. But there’s no excuse for flouting the rules and endangering first responders and the public. Such behavior should not be given a nod of approval as some Republican elected officials on Staten Island have done in recent days. Taming this virus will not happen in a political divide.
Most indoor gatherings, without extraordinary precautions, will be a problem while we wait for a vaccine. We don’t want January to look like last spring.
City Arborist’s Decision, Though Difficult, Is Correct
The Post Journal
No one wants to see the tall, wonderful trees on Jamestown’s West Third Street cut down, certainly not city arborist Dan Stone.
But Stone has studied the trees enough to arrive at an unpopular truth — the trees are becoming a safety risk and need to be removed. City residents won’t want to hear this, but Stone is making the right decision in removing the 43 oak trees, most of them more than 100 years old.
A Nov. 15 wind storm toppled two of the trees, including one that landed on a homeowner’s garage. A wind storm in October 2019 brought one of the majestic trees down on someone’s house. Yes, homeowner’s insurance will help pay for the damage, but what happens if one of the trees comes down on a person or a vehicle being driven down Third Street?
“I cannot make 100-year-old oak trees have roots that will sustain them any longer,” Stone said during a Parks, Recreation and Conservation Commission meeting last week. “As a precaution to public safety, I see them as a liability. We need to address this sooner rather than later.î
Stone is looking to make lemonade from the bag of lemons he was dealt. Money has been received from the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation to plant new trees along West Third Street. Stone wants those trees to have a maximum height of 50 to 55 feet, which will make them safer decades into the future. Stone said some of the new trees that might be planted include American elms, tulip and ginkgo. He is also looking into purchasing some items that will help manage how the roots grow along the terrace.
Arborists have long known West Third Street’s oak trees weren’t sustainable forever, but no one has wanted to deal with the problem in part because of the inevitable public backlash. Dan Stone and Parks, Recreation and Conservation Commission members deserve a lot of credit for making an unpopular, but necessary decision.
Virtual government meetings must not shut out public
The Auburn Citizen
Citing a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the community, including people who work in city government, the Auburn City Council has canceled its Thursday, Dec. 10, meeting and announced that its remaining meetings through the end of the year will be closed to the public and conducted via videoconference.
Gains made in slowing community spread of the virus during the past few months have unfortunately now been lost, and the council is just the latest among local government boards to recently go back to all-virtual meetings, and many more will likely follow suit in the next week or so as cases spike and indoor gatherings become increasingly risky.
We support these moves but with a vital caveat — these boards must follow the law and make sure the public has virtual access to these meetings, including a way for the public to provide comments in real-time either over the phone or via video conference. It’s also crucial that the meetings are recorded and posted on websites for people to see, and that meeting minutes are posted in a timely manner.
This pandemic is once again cutting off a hallmark of our democratic government — the ability to interact directly with elected officials at public meetings. But the good news is that we live in an age where technology can provide an excellent work-around that preserves this ability to engage. It’s essential that our local governments embrace these tools and use them consistently.
The city’s remaining December meetings include a business meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17, and a work session at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22. The meetings are live-streamed at auburnny.gov and recorded meetings are also available for viewing on the website.
Road salt reduction is long overdue
Adirondack Daily Enterprise
We are glad the Adirondack Park’s elected representatives — Republican and Democratic alike — and advocacy groups prevailed over the state Department of Transportation and convinced the governor to sign a road salt reduction bill the Legislature had passed almost unanimously in July. Still, it must be pointed out that this is truly a baby step at a time when grown-up action is needed.
This law commissions a task force to study how to reduce road salt use in the Adirondacks — and more importantly, compels the DOT to enact that study’s recommendations, something the department was resisting, according to state Sen. Betty Little. That’s good, but many salt reduction methods are already well known and acknowledged by DOT.
Research by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College clearly lays out the damage the DOT’s heavy-handed salt use does to people’s wells — and thus to their drinking water, plumbing and appliances — as well as to animals and plants. AWI’s research also clearly shows the same problems don’t exist on roads maintained by towns and counties, which use much less salt.
We also want to point out an obvious thing none of these officials seems to address: Road salt rusts out our cars and trucks.
Go to places that don’t use road salt, and you’ll discover a Jurassic Park of cars, from heavy-duty American classics to ’80s Japanese vehicles with great engines but lighter steel. In these places, with loving care, they can last as long as their engines and transmissions do — but here in salt country, it’s out of our hands. Ten to 20 years is the limit — and often less — before the salts rots them out beyond redemption.
Consider this comment that Bob Bevilacqua, a well-respected mechanic and owner of Carcuzzi Car Care Center in Saranac Lake, posted on the Enterprise Facebook page this weekend: “In the last week I had 4 cars in the shop that had to be thrown away because of rust holes in the chassis and frame(:) a 07 Subaru Impreza, 12 Honda Fit a Silverado 2010 and an 07 caddy deville.” He added, “it’s about time they reduced the amount of salt.”
We love and respect regional traffic safety columnist Dave Werner, but when he recently wrote columns about how salt use costs the taxpayers a little less per lane mile than sand, we told him he was only taking into account the costs to government. What about salt’s costs on everyone’s vehicle — on government vehicles, too, including the DOT’s own plow trucks. Why do you think we replace school buses every three years in the North Country? They’re not cheap, either.
Road salt is a tax on every vehicle. It definitely has its place as an effective ice melter and traffic safety tool, and we’re not calling for it to be eliminated by any means. But the DOT uses way too much of it and has resisted cutting back for too long. All of us — plants, animals, well users and vehicle owners — are paying a high price for that.