Greater Deference to Generals Has Undermined Civilian Control of the Military

New York Times

December 6, 2016

With Michael Flynn already in place as national security adviser and names like Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Newt Gingrich being floated for key foreign policy posts, I breathed a sigh of relief when General James Mattis was announced as Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary. Yet, while we could certainly do worse, we should be troubled by the prospect of a military man running the Pentagon at a time when the public is so isolated from its armed forces.

While I share the concern of “War on the Rocks” senior editor, Erin Simpson, about whether General Mattis is temperamentally suited to wrestle the Defense Department’s massive bureaucracy, his sterling reputation as a warrior-scholar would earn him instant respect. Yet there’s a reason that Congress, in establishing the position, was emphatic that it be “appointed from civilian life” and specified that the nomination would not be “within seven years [initially 10] after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force.” The military exists to implement policies set forth by civilian leaders. Recently separated officers are likely to reinforce the advice given the president by the Joint Chiefs rather than offer a political perspective.

Kori Schake, who co-edited a recent volume on civil-military affairs with Mattis, assures us that he would be “superb” in the role and dismisses concerns about militarization of the post on grounds that Mattis scrupulously deferred to civilians as a general. Yet she also paints the picture of an American society where few are “directly affected by decisions about our military forces.” Not only is the public therefore “enormously deferential to the military” but “elected leaders seek greater legitimacy by wrapping themselves in public confidence for the military.”

The consequence of this attitudinal shift, completely understandable more than four decades into an all-volunteer military, is to turn the old presumptions about civilian control of the military on their head. While it’s true, as Schake notes, that the brass has been overruled on such issues as gender and homosexual integration, elected leaders show much more deference to generals and admirals than they do to senior bureaucrats in other agencies. This is also true of major news media outlets, who regularly lampoon Congress for having the temerity to buy weapons systems that the Pentagon didn’t ask for or refusing to close military bases the brass insists are excess. Generals who are particularly charismatic and good at courting the press, like David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal or Mattis, are especially influential.

America’s generals have mostly been appropriately deferential to their civilian masters. But the temptation to court a deferential public as an end-around is always there. President Obama was rightly furious when McChrystal’s ambitious Afghanistan surge plan was leaked at a time when the administration was considering moving in the opposite direction. The Pentagon, frustrated by sequestration, has openly challenged Congress, repeatedly exaggerating the consequences of a mere half trillion dollar annual budget and even threatening to close bases without legislative authorization if lawmakers don’t act.

Having a civilian perspective atop the department is vital in this environment.This is doubly important given Trump’s utter lack of knowledge of, or seeming interest in, national security issues. It’s highly problematic, then, that he will have to defer on these matters to his national security adviser and defense secretary, both recently retired generals.

Original article