How the Generals Are Routing the Policy Wonks at the Pentagon

At stake is civilian control of the military.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (center) speaks alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (center left) and other senior Defense Department leaders as he holds a meeting with Indonesia Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (center) speaks alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (center left) and other senior Defense Department leaders as he holds a meeting with Indonesia Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Frustrated by lack of influence and disheartened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, Department of Defense civilians are heading for the door, leaving key positions unfilled in a Pentagon increasingly run by active-duty or retired military officers.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD for short, is the civilian arm of the department, crucial in assisting the secretary in policy development, operations planning, resource management, and more. OSD is traditionally a place where people spend entire careers—one former official likened it to “joining a priesthood”—but today it appears to be eroding at all levels. Interviews with a dozen current and former Department of Defense civilians reveal an increasingly hollow and demoralized workforce, with staffers feeling they no longer have a seat at the table.

Civilian oversight of the military “was already weakening in the last administration, and I think it basically fell off a cliff,” said one former Defense Department official who requested anonymity. “It sucks to work in an office where nobody listens to you.”

At least nine senior officials have left the department in the past year, including Sally Donnelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s senior advisor, and Elbridge Colby, who co-led development of the department’s premier strategic planning guidance, the National Defense Strategy. Most recently, in October three senior leaders working on international policy departed: Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs Robert Karem, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Alan Patterson, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy Thomas Goffus. Other key positions in OSD are vacant or filled in an acting capacity, including: chief management officer; deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia; assistant deputy of defense for strategic plans and capabilities; and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The attrition has caused concern outside the Defense Department as well. An independent, congressionally mandated review of the National Defense Strategy released this week highlighted the “relative imbalance of civilian and military voices” on critical national security issues, and urged the department to reverse this “unhealthy” trend.

“Constructive approaches to any of the foregoing issues must be rooted in healthy civil-military relations. Yet civilian voices have been relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy, undermining the concept of civilian control,” the commissioners wrote.

The degradation of the Defense Department’s civilian leadership dates to the Obama administration. Budget cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 led to a series of hiring freezes and cuts to the civil service, which depleted the workforce and contributed to poor morale, said Brian McKeon, who served as the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy from 2014 until 2017.

The cuts gutted the department’s civil service, leading to a workforce that is stretched thin, with few resources for maintaining deep expertise in specific issues.

“People are being treated as interchangeable widgets, as opposed to cultivating deep subject-matter expertise, and as a result some feel the institution stopped being trusted,” said Kathleen McInnis, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon, who served in OSD from 2006 to 2010.

While the trend began years ago, officials say it has accelerated under Trump. Turnover at the two-year mark of any administration is normal, but observers and insiders say the number of people leaving OSD after less than a year and a half of service is unusual.

The exodus, particularly in the offices focused on regional policy, is bound up at least in part with Trump’s volatile foreign policy and treatment of allies, said Kori Schake, the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The people who work on alliance issues, particularly alliance issues in Europe, are extraordinarily downhearted because of the president’s behavior,” said Schake, citing Trump’s incendiary rhetoric during the most recent NATO summit in July. Schake served in a variety of positions in multiple administrations throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, OSD Policy, the National Security Council, and the State Department.

The fear that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will either resign or be ousted is also driving senior civilians in the Pentagon out the door, Schake noted. “Most of the civilians who came to work in the Pentagon did so with trepidation about the president but an enormous amount of trust and admiration for Secretary Mattis,” said Schake. “It is understandable that people would worry about being the last person aboard.”

Another problem is the president’s hostile rhetoric toward America’s civil service at large. Both in the Pentagon and the State Department, officials are “incredibly frustrated by hearing the president talk about the civil service as the deep state, as adversaries and enemies—as opposed to people who get up every day and try really, really hard to do their best for national security,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security. She served on the National Security Council and in the Defense Department between 2006 and 2014.

“That’s an enormous morale challenge,” she stressed.

One current administration official attributed the exodus to John Rood, the Pentagon’s top policy official and a former Lockheed Martin executive. “He’s a bad manager and he’s a micromanager,” the official said, adding that his influence is leading to “a totally dysfunctional OSD Policy where people are leaving and you can’t recruit good people.”

Another recurring theme is the increasingly toxic dynamic between OSD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a trend that officials say began in the Obama administration but has accelerated under Trump. The Trump administration initially had trouble filling top positions at OSD—Rood’s job, undersecretary of defense for policy, for example, was vacant for a year after the president’s inauguration—due both to the large pool of “Never Trump” Republicans and a strict White House vetting process. Members of the Joint Staff, including Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who worked closely with the Mattis during their time in the Marine Corps, and other high-ranking officers moved quickly to fill that gap.

“The Joint Staff and the [combatant commanders] are having a field day,” said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t answer any requests, they feel emboldened, and Policy is really struggling.”

In particular, sources say Dunford has tried to centralize decision-making on military force allocation across theaters in the Joint Staff. The independent review of the National Defense Strategy backed up that claim and urged the Department of Defense to ensure civilian voices have a say.

“Put simply, allocating priority—and forces—across theaters of warfare is not solely a military matter,” the commissioners wrote. “Unless global integration is nested under higher-order guidance from civilians, an effort to centralize defense direction under the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may succeed operationally but produce profound—and potentially catastrophic—strategic problems.”

A spokesman for the Joint Staff, Col. Patrick Ryder, said the group has “a very good working relationship” with OSD Policy and the two collaborate at multiple levels daily. When it comes to providing force management or “plans recommendations” to the secretary, every Joint Staff recommendation is coordinated through OSD Policy, he said.

Ryder took issue with the commissioners’ characterization of force allocation, saying that OSD Policy is “deeply involved” in global force management alongside the Joint Staff.

“It is simply not true that Gen. Dunford is attempting to centralize decision-making on military force allocations across all theaters,” Ryder said. “The Joint Staff’s global integration efforts are all focused on ensuring the Secretary of Defense and policymakers are able to make globally informed decisions. Everything we do is done under the principles of civilian control of the military.”

Rood also disputed the characterization of tension between OSD and the Joint Staff.

“OSD and Joint Staff share a strong relationship. There isn’t a day that goes by that my team and I aren’t working closely across a range of issues with the Joint Staff. The Pentagon is a big place, but you would never know it from the frequent interactions we have all day,” Rood said.“We work together hand-in-hand on a variety of topics including global force management. This collaboration is essential to the successful implementation of our national defense strategy.”

Current and former officials are sympathetic to Mattis’s position. It was only natural for Mattis to initially lean on the familiar military community while important civilian positions remained vacant, they told Foreign Policy. One recently departed Defense official noted that from the start, Mattis tried hard to make sure OSD Policy was fully resourced and included in discussions. While Mattis was initially challenged to fill key civilian positions, today OSD leadership is “on a path” to full health, the official said.

Nonetheless, many believe the imbalance in civil versus military leadership in the Pentagon is detrimental to the department’s ability to formulate policy. Evan Montgomery, who served as a civilian on the Joint Staff for the last few months of the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump administration, acknowledged that the tension at times became unhealthy.

“I think the Joint Staff believed the Secretary of Defense was being underserved by OSD. It was capable of filling that gap and tried to,” said Montgomery, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It might’ve gotten ahead of its skis on some issues, which created tension.”

A second former Defense Department official who requested anonymity said Mattis has filled his front office with active-duty military officials and veterans. For example, Mattis chose a two-star Navy admiral, Rear Adm. Craig Faller, who has since been nominated to head U.S. Southern Command, to be his senior military advisor, and a retired Navy two-star, Kevin Sweeney, to be his chief of staff. Both worked for Mattis during his tenure as head of U.S. Central Command.

“It felt like our influence declined,” said a recently departed OSD Policy official. “It’s not uncommon to lose arguments, but it seemed like we were losing more often, or worse it felt like we weren’t even part of the conversation. We were just bypassed.”

The second former Defense official described a general perception among Pentagon civilians that the secretary does not fully trust or rely on OSD policy.

“The secretary and his staff are comfortable with the language of the Joint Staff, [but] you have to, at least at first, make room at the table for the civilian side because they are going to bring institutional knowledge,” according to the first former Defense Department official. While the official noted that the problem began under former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, “It is much, much worse now. I think people feel like they are not valued in this administration at large.”

The end result, experts worry, is that civilian control of the military is being undercut. This fundamental concept, required by law in the United States, dates to the country’s earliest days, when the Founding Fathers wrote it into the Constitution. At the core of civilian control of the military is a strong civil service, which acts as the “brain trust and historic memory of national security policy” through changes in administrations, said Mara Karlin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served in the Pentagon from 2004 to 2009 and then again from 2012 to the end of the Obama administration.

“At the end of the day, as we all know thorny national security issues don’t just involve the military; political-military considerations invariably bleed into them,” she said. “If the senior military’s leadership views are going to be just constrained to military advice … who is thinking about issues from that broader perspective?”

As a recently retired general, Mattis is in a tricky situation when it comes to maintaining the appropriate balance between the civilian and military side of national security policy. Although Schake, who co-edited a book with Mattis on civil-military relations, lauded the secretary’s efforts to shield the Pentagon from politics, she criticized his choice to stay out of the public eye.

“He is not spending enough time or effort talking about the wars,” Schake said. “I think it shows in the way lots of folks, especially people who have fought in the wars or loved ones of people who have fought in the wars, feel adrift.”

Robbie Gramer contributed reporting.

Update, Nov. 15, 2018: This story has been updated to include additional comment from a spokesman for the Joint Staff.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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