Presumptive President-elect Joe Biden appears ready to announce retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin as his pick for Secretary of Defense (SECDEF). If Biden does this, he would need a congressional waiver and it would be the second exception to the rule barring recent ex-generals from running the civilian Department of Defense (DOD) in just four years.
President Trump’s nomination of retired four-star Marine General James Mattis created some controversy. But “Mad Dog” Mattis’s stellar 40-year military record and reputation as a defense intellectual and “warrior-monk” — coupled with Trump’s inexperience in defense matters — convinced the Congress to give him a waiver.
Congress should not do that again.
While Austin may be a decent man, and a good former general, neither he nor the current situation appear extraordinary enough to merit another waiver. And it is even harder to justify a former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to lead the Pentagon as we shift away from the Middle East toward China.
And, considering the others on Biden’s short-list for SECDEF, including defense luminaries such as Michèle Flournoy (who, as I have noted, has her own issues as co-founder of the pro-China WestExec Advisors consulting group), it is hard not to see Austin as Biden’s diversity pick.
While it would be great to have a minority SECDEF, that should not be a prime factor in giving a waiver to yet another ex-general.
There is good reason the National Security Act of 1947 bars ex-military officers from becoming SECDEF within 10 years (later amended to seven years) of retirement. Maintaining civilian control over the military is one reason. Another is the simple fact that senior military officers are trained to be apolitical.
As The Bulwark notes, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his memoir that “I would often tell [General David Petraeus] that Iraq was his battlespace and Washington was mine.” Career military officers have a deeply ingrained framework that does not necessarily add value to what is a highly political civilian position.
On the contrary, they easily cause issues such as former General Marshall standing aside as SECDEF while a civil-military crisis slowly developed between Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And there was Mattis leaning heavily on his former uniformed colleagues in the Marine Corps for advice and counsel under Trump.
Biden’s nomination of Austin will also test the Senate Democrats’ consistency as pointed out by The Washington Post. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in January 2017 during the debate on the Mattis nomination.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on Armed Services, reluctantly voted for the Mattis waiver but said he would not do it again:
Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation. Therefore, I will not support a waiver for future nominees, nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.
Democrats believe that healthy civil-military relations are essential to our democracy and to the strength and effectiveness of our military. We will end the Trump Administration’s politicization of the armed forces and distortion of civilian and military roles in decision-making. We will reinstate national security policymaking processes that advance competent civilian control.
Yet here Biden may be doing just what the platform argued against. Let’s hope Biden does not go forward with this inappropriate pick for SECDEF, and if he does that Congress will refuse to provide him a waiver.
America needs a highly qualified civilian for this critical post, not another ex-general.