The Biden Dilemma: Military or Civil Control of the Ministry of Defense?


President-Elect Joe Biden has yet to announce his election to head the Pentagon, but disagreement is brewing over what background the next Secretary of Defense should bring to the job.

Several top candidates have emerged, including the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Department of Defense who would be the first female boss, and two African Americans, one of whom has such a fertile recent military history that lawmakers, veterans and former officials told Washington Newsday they could make the selection problematic.

Meanwhile, the media, including Axios and CNN, presented Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army General who headed the U.S. Central Command, as one of Biden’s possible choices.

Other possible candidates include Jeh Johnson, who was Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 after serving in the Obama administration as General Advisor to the Department of Defense, and Michèle Flournoy, who served as Assistant Assistant Secretary and Undersecretary of State at the Pentagon.

While Flournoy seemed to get a boost on Wednesday after telling Politico that her interview “went well,” Biden’s reported observation of Austin has drawn criticism for being in conflict with the National Security Act of 1947, which mandates a seven-year gap between military service and civilian control of the armed forces. Austin retired from the army in 2016.

The law provides for an exemption from Congress, but in 1950, in the history of the United States, only one such exemption was granted to General George Marshall, who was famous for the Marshall Plan after World War II.

This exemption would be granted only three years after President Donald Trump elected retired Four-Star Marine General James Mattis for the same position less than three years after he retired from the military.

Mattis managed to win his nomination 98-1, with Democratic Senator Kristen Gillibrand of New York being the only vote against. She said: “Civilian control over our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy.

Although no one questioned Lloyd’s record, legislators today seemed less eager to welcome irregularities.

I think that maintaining civilian control over everything, including titles and who is at the top, is a really important thing.
Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.)

“I think civilian control of the military is such a unique feature of the American system of government that we simply take it for granted,” Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), member of the Armed Services Committee, told Washington Newsday.

Kaine said he actually favored candidates with some sort of military background and did not rule out future exemptions like the ones for Marshall and Mattis, which he called “a big exception” to the long-standing protocol. But he remembered his personal experience as a young man working as a volunteer in Honduras, where he lived under military rule, which influenced his thinking on the matter.

“I think that maintaining civilian control over everything, including titles and who is at the top, is a really important thing,” Kaine said.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, expressed a similar opinion.

“As for the broader principle of civilian control, I think it’s really important that there is civilian leadership,” Hawley told Washington Newsday, noting that anyone who has a recent military background “must step back from that and try to make a sacrifice.

He referred to examples from the last four years when critics of Trump demanded that military leaders speak out against the president’s policies, or even oppose him, as “alarming” and “incredibly dangerous,” showing that elected civilian leaders must always have the last word.

“I believe it is important that there is strong civilian leadership and that this continues unabated,” Hawley said.

The potential lack of congressional support for another waiver was pointed out by Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and vice president of Beacon Global Strategies LLC. He said that the political wind has changed during the past administration.

“I have my doubts that Congress is ready for another round of waivers when so much emphasis is placed on investing in civil-military relations in the Department,” he told Washington Newsday.

Sayers, who previously served as an assistant to the Commander of the United States Pacific Command as an adviser to Congress and a defense policy adviser, stressed that Biden had not yet made a final choice, but he said the selection would reveal much about the future.

“Whichever person he chooses will really speak for the approach he has chosen,” he said.

Other people with military experience who spoke to Washington Newsday felt that a possible repetition of Trump’s decision to defy the norm was not the direction in which they wanted to see the country move.

“I firmly believe that it is time to have a truly civilian Secretary of Defense,” said Fred Wellman, a retired army officer and senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, a largely Republican political action committee formed in opposition to Trump.


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“This is not a criticism of any of the candidates mentioned, but civilian control balances military culture with those who serve a lifetime in uniform,” he told Washington Newsday. “A retired general with 40 years of service, even with a brief gap as a civilian, comes with a military approach that tends to be feasible at any cost, to get by with what you are given, and not necessarily with a firm understanding of the political machinations required to serve in the Department of Defense.

After a turbulent government in which five men took the helm of the Pentagon at one point or another, Wellman said that it was necessary to rethink the approach.

“We need someone who has that experience after four years of Trump and his appointees politicizing the military,” Wellman said.

The veterans also expressed their concern that once again such a senior military figure, who retired from service so recently, was brought on board to advise on policy decisions regarding the White House defense strategy.

“In my view, it is important to have civilian oversight. This is what the founders wanted to fend off from authoritarianism,” Naveed Shah, army veteran and government affairs officer on the Joint Defense Political Action Committee, told Washington Newsday. “In our view, the Trump administration has abolished this norm, and it is important for us to return to it.

Shah said that generals work best on the battlefield, but the home front needs civilians to take the lead.

“Military leadership does a great job of leading soldiers, but it’s important that we have that civilian leadership and leadership,” he said on Newsday in Washington. “Civilian leadership at the top of the Department of Defense helps us plan for future conflict, while national security takes precedence.

Civilian control of the military is the central principle of the Department of Defense, which was established in 1947, the same year the National Security Act was passed and the 10-year buffer zone imposed on it was adopted. This waiting period for uniformed officers at the head of the Pentagon was reduced to seven years under President Barack Obama.

Apart from this change and Marshall’s nomination, the rule applied for seven decades and spanned several historical eras, including the era of competition and recovery after World War II.

“[Former President Dwight D.] Eisenhower appointed two non-military employees to the post, both of whom did a fair job of considering new technologies and postwar reconstruction efforts while maintaining budgets,” said Elana Duffy, retired Army Sergeant First Class and Purple Heart recipient, of former Secretary of Defense Charles Erwin Wilson and Neil H. McElroy.

She referred to the dawn of new weapon systems and the need to help society recover from the damage caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, comparing then and now.

“We are now entering a similar phase, so it makes sense to consider civilians for this position,” Duffy told Washington Newsday. “Chiefs of Staff can take on most military duties anyway, and as long as the person has expertise in defense policy, I find it more comforting that the Secretary of Defense is a civilian than, say, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

But the Pentagon is a huge, complex agency, the largest in the U.S. government, and many with and without military experience, however qualified they may seem, have not taken up the challenge.

Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s think tank Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, discussed this issue, arguing that the military background was not necessarily appropriate for this position.

“The truth is that the United States has had many excellent defense ministers with no military experience or very little time in uniform, while others have struggled despite many years of service,” Preble told Washington Newsday.

“People from very similar backgrounds often learn different lessons from these experiences. John McCain and John Kerry both served in Vietnam, but routinely encountered opposite sides on the issue of U.S. military intervention”.


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Preble, who served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, said that inflation in the Pentagon could undermine confidence in the civilian leadership.

“I am concerned that the ever-increasing size and complexity of the Department of Defense may be intimidating and may prevent even able civilians from taking on the enormous but necessary task of bringing the military-industrial complex under control,” he told Washington Newsday.

And while the frequent disagreements between Mattis and Trump, which ended with the resignation of the man the president nicknamed “Mad Dog” during his nearly two-year term in office, remain a widely respected figure on both sides of the aisle, he has also been a popular figure on both sides.

Indeed, the prospect of military leadership in the White House Cabinet in general, especially from such highly decorated figures as Mattis and Austin, may become more attractive, especially since Trump has set a precedent.

“Military experience offers a unique perspective, and that perspective can certainly make any candidate for any position stronger, especially for positions like Secretary of Defense,” Maggie Seymour, a Foreign Policy Research Institute staffer and naval veteran, told Washington Newsday.

But she quickly put her answer into perspective.

“This is not the only qualification, or even necessarily the most important one,” Seymour said.

She stressed that the person responsible for the Pentagon “is always a civilian, even if he or she is a veteran, he or she must act as a civilian.

“This is absolutely critical to a democracy – civilian control of the armed forces, for a number of reasons – and especially now,” Seymour said. “Our foreign policy has become hypermilitarized, with the Department of Defense often taking the lead in international relations, when in fact it should be the civilians in the Foreign Ministry. The military is a tool of a nation, it is a tool, and civilian oversight and leadership that understands that they are only one piece of the puzzle is critical to getting our foreign policy on track for the future.

As the country faces a critical period in many respects – a torturous political transition, an ever-increasing pandemic, tensions abroad sparked by protracted conflicts on old battlefields that threaten to erupt in new ones – some argue, more importantly than ever, that civilians have a firm grip on the world’s most powerful military.

“Right now, I think there are even more powerful reasons than usual for not appointing a recently retired four-star military, wonderful as it is [and all the people who are supposedly being considered by Biden are good people], as secretary of defense,” Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told Washington Newsday.

Brooks, who served as an advisor to Flournoy, Biden’s alleged first choice for the Pentagon, during her time as political secretary of defense, looked back on the past four years that have deeply damaged the balance between the civil and military sectors, a balance that she said the secretary of defense would normally preside over.

The Pentagon is a huge but sensitive machine. Without military and civilian expertise, it cannot function effectively, and if either is weakened, the whole thing becomes increasingly unstable.
Professor Rosa Brooks of the Georgetown University Law Center

“The civilian side of the DoD has been decimated, for example by the trump card of empty positions filled with people in acting positions,” Brooks told Washington Newsday.

“Mattis reportedly relied heavily on his own network of former military subordinates and colleagues – understandable from his point of view – but as a result, civilian experts at all levels within the Department of Defense were increasingly marginalized during his tenure. And Mattis’ command and personal staff increasingly became the scene of political decision-making. This balance must be restored urgently”.

Instead of doubling this shift toward a militarization of U.S. policy, she said Biden should restore the balance so that civilians can once again take responsibility, as provided by law.

“The Pentagon is a huge but sensitive machine. It can’t work effectively without military and civilian expertise, and if either one is weakened, the whole thing falters,” Brooks said. “This is a moment when the DoD really needs someone who can come in, be ready for action immediately, play that vital translating role and restore the critical civil-military balance.

She argued that it is in the best interest of the country to make the choice in accordance with national security conditions.

“Having a recently retired four-star [general]as defense minister risks further upsetting this balance,” Brooks said, “and further demoralizing the civilian side of the Defense Department.


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