Now Is a Bad Time to Weaken Civilian Control Over the Military
Biden’s nomination of a retired general to head the Pentagon reinforces a dangerous trend. His confirmation must come with concrete safeguards.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
From the election of Abraham Lincoln that preceded the U.S. Civil War until last Wednesday, Americans were able to take the peaceful transition of power between presidents for granted. The value of a nonpartisan military under democratic civilian control seemed abstract and theoretical, something for other nations to worry about. The mob attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are a sudden reminder of just how vital a nonpartisan military really is—even in the United States.
President Donald Trump has largely ignored the laws and traditions governing U.S. civil-military relations. But problems in the relationship between the military, politicians, and the public began well before Trump’s tenure and will remain after he is gone. If the United States does not reverse these trends soon, it will likely find itself in an even more dangerous situation in the coming decades.
Now is precisely the wrong time to further politicize the country’s military and weaken democratic civilian control by installing another retired general as U.S. defense secretary, an unhealthy precedent established by Trump. For good reasons, U.S. law bans recently retired military officers from the position, and Congress should not allow another exemption to that law on behalf of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee, retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin. At the same time, Austin’s confirmation as the first Black defense secretary would be historic. So if Congress does allow the exemption and confirms Austin, it must pass new legislation to make it more difficult for future presidents to nominate retired generals. Biden and Austin will also have to take concrete steps to ensure and emphasize that the office is that of a civilian and that the U.S. military remains under civilian control.
At first glance, there seems to be no real risk that Austin will pose any threat to civilian control of the military. Certainly, he is a highly respected former Army commander who has been a trailblazer throughout his career, attaining positions that no Black soldier had previously reached.
But by following Trump’s precedent and once again asking the U.S. Congress to temporarily revoke the ban on recently active generals serving as defense secretary, Biden has deferred some of the hard work of restoring civil-military norms and repairing the damage Trump has done. This damage will only increase with time, and a retired general is not the right person to repair it.
The Pentagon has plenty of generals. That’s why Congress created a new civilian position, the defense secretary, in the National Security Act of 1947—to insert a second civilian other than the president into the military chain of command. Because they decided to maintain a large standing military at the start of the Cold War, Congress and the president needed additional help to exercise civilian control—as required by the U.S. Constitution—of a nonpartisan military. Congress also mandated that nominees for defense secretary must “come from civilian life” and prohibited any former military officer from serving in this role for 10 years after leaving military service. (Congress changed that to seven years in 2008.) This was seen as the minimum time for any military officer—let alone a retired general such as Austin, who served 41 years in uniform before retiring in 2016—to establish a civilian identity after a military career.
Having a civilian defense secretary also helps provide a firewall between partisan politics and the Pentagon, both in Washington and in the broader U.S. political culture. Given the state of U.S. politics, restoring this cultural firewall is vital to the long-term health of civil-military relations.
The state of civilian control over the Pentagon is another real concern, especially after four years under Trump’s chaotic leadership. In late 2018, for example, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission stated in its final report: “It is critical that [the Defense Department]—and Congress—reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance.” This drift needs to stop, and a recently active general such as Austin is the wrong person to stop it.
Military service alone does not prepare a retired commander to serve as a political appointee. The job of defense secretary requires political skills to make value judgments on political decisions; explain policies in a transparent manner to the media and public; balance competing political relationships between the White House, Congress, and military services; and manage one of the world’s largest bureaucracies and budgets.
Reports that Austin suffered from “culture shock” during his initial engagements on Capitol Hill and his reputation of reticence to engage the media suggest he will face a steep learning curve. Citing these concerns, members of the House Armed Services Committee have presented Austin with a list of demands regarding Pentagon management. Biden has also taken steps to increase civilian control by appointing three former Obama administration officials—Kathleen Hicks, Colin Kahl, and Kelly Magsamen—into key Pentagon posts. (Disclosure: I have worked for both Hicks and Kahl.)
But the confirmation of another retired general is also likely to contribute to broader cultural expectations about the role of the military in domestic politics. As I found in my research with the Duke University scholar Peter Feaver, most Americans do not differentiate between active and retired generals. Even after former Defense Secretary James Mattis left his post, only 31 percent of Americans could correctly identify him as retired from active duty.
This blurring of civil-military lines—exactly what the National Security Act was supposed to prevent—contributes to concerning trends in the way Americans think about the military’s role in partisan politics. As a result of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, exacerbated by retired lieutenant general and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s conspiracy theories and public comments about the imposition of martial law, Americans are now having discussions about the military’s role in electoral politics that have been—and should remain—off the table since at least the end of the Nixon administration.
Americans still have more confidence in the military than most other institutions, as they have for decades. Recent analyses of public opinion suggest that this may be turning into deference to the military whenever civilian and military leaders disagree. New polling by Risa Brooks, Michael Robinson, and Heidi Urben shows that U.S. Military Academy cadets increasingly see military service as a prerequisite for service as a civilian defense secretary.
The perception that retired military officers are top candidates for political appointments is also helping to create the impression that there are now “Republican generals” and “Democratic generals.” Meanwhile, political leaders have begun to turn to “their” generals as the part of the military worth trusting. With growing breaks in the civil-military firewall, senior officers and troops see that partisan loyalty can and will be rewarded. One only needs to watch the videos that show U.S. Capitol Police officers opening the barriers to allow the mob to attack Congress to understand how dangerous partisan bias among a nation’s security forces can be. Partisanship among the troops, if not checked, can also undermine unit cohesion and effectiveness during military missions overseas.
In light of these developments—the Jan. 6 insurrection, weakening civilian control over the Pentagon, and shifting views on the military’s role in partisan politics—this is precisely the wrong time to remove the legislative ban to benefit another retired general, no matter how exceptional Austin may be. Biden is following Trump’s lead in breaking a vital political norm. Even if Austin surpasses expectations, there is a strong likelihood that the U.S. military will be drawn further into partisan and electoral politics.
That said, Austin’s confirmation would be historic. He would be the first Black man to serve as defense secretary at a time of renewed concerns about white supremacist extremism within the uniformed military. In light of these dynamics, his rejection by Congress would come at a serious cost. Moreover, Austin’s selection also highlights deep cultural and structural problems in the promotion pathways available to people of color in national security. Fixing these long-standing issues is an urgent and important challenge.
Democrats, who now control both houses of Congress, are unlikely to hand Biden an early loss on such a key appointment. And there likely will be pressure from the public not to do so. A growing body of political science research demonstrates that support for civil-military norms often breaks along partisan lines, and the narrative that Biden should be allowed to appoint a retired general simply because Trump did has already formed.
If members of Congress therefore decide to change the law and temporarily overturn the ban, they should at least be clear-eyed about the potential civil-military costs. Biden, Congress, and Austin himself should also take concrete steps to mitigate the long-term damage to civil-military relations.
Austin should take extreme care to assume the customs and responsibilities of a civilian. He must embrace his role as the Pentagon’s public face both on Capitol Hill and with the media. He must always be referred to as Secretary Austin, not Gen. Austin—both in public and in his relations with military officers. Biden will also need to cement Austin’s new identity and strictly forgo Trump’s habit of praising “my generals.” This shift may not come natural to Biden, who referred to Austin as “general” nine times during the nomination announcement. If Austin is serious about assuming a civilian identity, he could also consider resigning his commission before assuming office, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did before he became president.
Austin must also ensure that he builds a strong civilian staff. Austin should avoid the perception, and reality, that he relies too much on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—as Mattis did—or the military planners in the Pentagon. Austin must fully empower his civilian team to rebuild oversight processes, especially concerning the budget, transparency, and war plan reviews. And he must back his civilian appointees, who derive a large part of their authority from others’ perception of whether the defense secretary has authorized them to speak and make decisions on his behalf. The appointments to top Defense Department jobs announced so far suggest Austin understands these challenges, but it will be difficult for him to ignore or modify existing relationships built over four decades in the military.
Congress should also take concrete steps to ensure that appointing a retired general as defense secretary does not become a precedent. It should reestablish the original 10-year ban, require a supermajority in both houses of Congress to overrule it, and place a limit on the number of recently retired military officers who can serve in Senate-confirmed Pentagon roles.
The rationale behind a law passed 74 years ago can be difficult to comprehend. But, sadly, the events of Jan. 6 have made the importance of civilian control of a nonpartisan military freshly clear. While there was never any doubt that the insurrection would fail, the speed of the military response paled in comparison to the actions of June 1, when the National Guard helped police aggressively clear Lafayette Square of largely peaceful protesters.
We can only imagine just how dangerous events could have turned if Trump had gotten the wish he made in front of the crowd before it stormed the Capitol: “If those tens of thousands of people would be allowed—the military, the Secret Service … the police, law enforcement … to come up with us. Is that possible? Can you just let them, please?”
In this environment, further politicizing the U.S. military is a real danger. Americans—especially military and political officials—must take all steps now to ensure that the uniformed military’s oath remains to the U.S. Constitution, not to a party or a leader. Events have made abundantly clear that Americans cannot take this principle for granted. Trump will leave office on Jan. 20, but broader problems in the military’s relationship to civilian society and the threat of political violence will not go away. Even if Congress ratifies Biden’s historic appointment of Austin, now is the wrong time to follow Trump’s lead by further politicizing the military.