All the President’s Generals

There’s some reason for concern about the balance of America’s civil-military relations, but it’s the civil side we should be worried about.


There is little doubt that Gen. James Mattis will be a superb secretary of defense. He’s intellectually acquisitive, crisp in his thinking, intensely thoughtful about defense issues, and not particularly impressed with himself (as my eccentric mother would say, this comes from a solid reading of the classics). The question is not whether he would serve the country well, but whether it’s good for the country to have a recently retired military officer as the civilian leader of the Department of Defense.

I think it is. I’m a Mattis partisan, to be sure, but that’s not my reasoning. And I’m in good company with the country’s two most prominent and flinty experts on civil-military issues, Eliot Cohen and Peter Feaver, likewise supporting the nomination.

The American system of civil-military relations gives our military leadership a very influential role in the making of national-security policies. U.S. political leaders have traditionally trusted our military with a latitude rare in liberal democracies, because our military has rigorously disciplined itself to exercise that influence only to advance the president’s decisions. Once the civilian leadership has set policy, the military knows to salute and support the policy or resign their commissions. Those are the only two options.

While law establishes civilian control, norms predominantly police it. Research Mattis and I conducted for our book on civil-military relations suggests American norms here are fundamentally healthy, but changing. Less on the military side than the civilian; although, as Lindsay Cohen, Jim Golby, and Peter Feaver’s chapter in our book cautions, military attitudes about several elements of tradition are also changing. Cohn, Golby, and Feaver worry that the combination of plummeting public confidence in our elected leaders coupled with sustained very high public support for the military could shift the informal balance of power in the civil-military relationship too much in favor of the military at high policy levels. While a legitimate concern, recent years offer scant evidence of too much military influence — to the contrary, political leaders have made choices about sequestration, military pay raises, women in the infantry, and homosexuals with very little regard for the opposition of military leaders.

What comes through most strikingly in the survey data collected by YouGov for our book, is how unengaged Americans are in the defense enterprise. Large percentages of the public don’t know even basic elements of the issues, like the size of our armed forces (many failed to come within a factor of six) or whether it’s appropriate for active-duty officers to be involved in policies traditionally beyond the reach of our military. The data show a public enormously deferential to the military on issues of war strategy, and supportive of the military having a broader role than traditional civil-military relations allows for. The public does not share experts’ concerns about retired military officers endorsing political candidates or speaking at political conventions, because the public has outsourced its expertise to the military itself.

The data also show political elites increasingly view the military as just another political actor in national debates — a very different view than the military has of itself. This trend has the potential to make political leaders distrustful of the military advice they receive, a worry both the current and former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have emphasized. But the data suggests the military are themselves better guardians of civil-military relations than are the public. Political leaders very often rely on the military to make the case for support of the president’s policies, and often seek military endorsements of their candidacy. Until that changes, we are likely to see more appointments of veterans as elected leaders seek greater legitimacy by wrapping themselves in public confidence for the military.

And why shouldn’t the country’s most informed defense experts transition to civilian roles, provided they perform civilian functions and are rigorously vetted in congressional confirmation? Forty-five years into an all-volunteer force, and with small numbers relative to our population, few Americans are directly affected by decisions about our military forces. It is not particularly surprising they look to this widely admired institution for understanding, and have confidence the institution will act with integrity. Nor is it surprising that veterans feel a strong obligation to contribute to better defense policies because they care deeply about the United States and about the young men and women putting their lives on the line to defend it.

Civil-military relations in America remain an unequal relationship, though: political leaders have a responsibility to seek unvarnished military counsel, but they are under no obligation to take that advice. We elect national leaders to aggregate our societal preferences, including whether to go to war, and how much of blood, treasure, and effort to expend on these wars. Mattis not only has a deep understanding of the norms of American civil-military relations, he has consistently upheld them. He was “retired early” by the Obama administration, and bore it without complaint — because all senior military officers serve at the pleasure of the president. He very often gave advice that was not taken by his political leaders, and still supported their policies — because the president gets to choose policy. In retirement, he undertook to encourage public understanding and involvement on the issues of his expertise. He didn’t endorse political candidates or participate in campaigns. But he is willing to serve any president for the good of our country. He is a model of American civil-military comportment on both sides of the civil-military divide.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake