December 8, 2020
News broke last night that Lloyd Austin is President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be the next Secretary of Defense. Because Austin retired from the Army as a four-star general only four years ago, his appointment will require a waiver from Congress. It should not be granted.
When it became clear that Michèle Flournoy, who had been almost universally assumed would be the pick, was facing competition, I wrote that Biden has many good choices for SecDef. While Austin was included among them, I wrote that, “Like most who study civil-military relations, I would strongly prefer that Biden not nominate another recently-retired general to head the Pentagon so close to President Trump’s violating the norm that the job come ‘from civilian life’ when he picked Jim Mattis.”
When Congress created that position in 1947, they specified that its occupant must be “appointed from civilian life by the President” with the proviso that “a person who has within ten years been on active duty as a commissioned officer in a Regular component of the armed services shall not be eligible for appointment.”
In addition to concerns that the senior generals and admirals of World War II enjoyed more political prestige than virtually any civilian, lawmakers believed this cooling-off period would “help ensure that no one military service dominated the newly established Defense Department; ensure that the new Secretary of Defense was truly the President’s (rather than a service’s) representative; and, again, preserve the principle of civilian control of the military at a time when the United States was departing from its century-and-a-half long tradition of a small standing military.”
Just over three years later, owing to the twin crises of the Revolt of the Admirals against the second defense secretary and the debacle at the outset of America’s entry into the Korean War, President Harry Truman requested a waiver. Writing Congress, he urged, “I am a firm believer in the general principle that our national defense establishment should be headed by a civilian. However, in view of the present critical circumstances and General [George] Marshall’s unusual qualifications, I believe that the national interest will be served best by making an exception in this case.” The request drew some pointed questions but was ultimately endorsed — along with a statement expressing “the sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”
That intention was honored, as no retired officer was nominated to the post for 66 years, until Trump selected Mattis. While controversial, many of us argued at the time that the waiver should be granted given the dearth of quality alternatives. Because so many Republican foreign-policy experts had signed open letters arguing that Trump was unfit to be president, the bench of qualified GOP former officials and think tankers was unavailable. Facing the prospect of Rudy Giuliani running the Pentagon, Mattis seemed like just the adult supervision a neophyte commander-in-chief needed.
But that’s not the situation today. Biden himself is an extremely seasoned foreign policy hand, having spent decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including multiple stints as its chairman and then eight years a Vice President. Further, all of the other candidates who had reportedly been on his shortlist—Flournoy, former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, and Senator Tammy Duckworth—are well qualified.
Yes, so is Austin. More than four decades of military service, including multiple Pentagon tours culminating as Army vice chief of staff, and heading up Central Command has him well prepared for the job. And, apparently unlike Flournoy, he enjoys a warm relationship with Biden. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Further, the fact that Austin would be the first Black SecDef would be not only a historic milestone but an especially strong signal at a moment when racial tensions are higher than they have been in a generation. Sixteen percent of the armed forces are Black and 43 percent are persons of color.
Still, tabbing another recently-retired general so close to Mattis’ tenure sends the wrong message. After four years of hollowing out the civilian talent base in the Pentagon, it’s time to restore the balance.
The defense secretary is a civilian policymaker, not a warfighter. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, brings decades of uniformed experience to the conversation as do the service chiefs and vice chairman. Likewise, each of the geographic combatant commanders have been steeped in that culture their entire career. We simply don’t need another military man at the table.
Alas, I fully expect Congress to grant the waiver. A vote against a popular general is difficult to cast; indeed, precluding having to do so was among the reasons the prohibition was written into the law to begin. It’ll be even harder to vote against making history.