How Biden Will—and Won’t—Battle the Pentagon
What the new president really thinks about the military—and what the military really thinks about him.
Early in his term as president, Donald Trump famously called America’s military leadership “my generals.” It was a description that might have rubbed the military the wrong way were it not for his decision to increase defense spending by some $100 billion over three years. The spending spree, which included pay raises for those in uniform, solidified Trump’s standing at the Defense Department and in the field. Many in the military, even in its most senior and skeptical ranks, supported Trump and celebrated his off-the-cuff derision of progressives.
The love affair didn’t last. Trump’s reproachful and mocking manner—“You’re all losers,” he said during his first full meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 2017. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”—so undermined his standing as commander in chief that, by the end of his term, the military was sick of him, with 2020 election polls showing a preference for Joe Biden among all ranks, an astonishing slippage in Trump’s support among a group that voted overwhelmingly for him four years prior. “I was really shocked by how many of my former colleagues voted for the former president and openly supported him,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who pointedly refused to mention Trump by name. “But when he [Trump] turned on the military, well, the military turned on him.”
And so it is that, even inside the military, President Joe Biden is defined not so much by who he is but by who he isn’t—namely, Donald Trump. The difference between Biden and Trump isn’t that Biden is loath to confront the military—quite the opposite. For decades, his dealings with officers have been marked by an insistence on showing he’s not intimidated by them. But the new president is steeped in the ways of Washington rather than reality television. Before Biden has had any chance of applying his deal-making powers abroad, he has already been using his full range of diplomatic skills at the Pentagon.
Biden remains largely a mystery to the military, and there’s a good reason why. While Biden served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, his experience with the military’s upper echelons has been incidental. “We have to remember that Biden headed up the Senate judiciary and foreign relations committees,” said Gordon Adams, a former White House official for diplomacy, foreign assistance, defense, and intelligence budgeting. “That’s not to say that Biden didn’t know or talk with military leaders, because he certainly did, but his primary contacts were with diplomats, not generals.”
One thing the military knows about Biden is that he “knows the State Department and knows it well,” said Adams, now a fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “And that has shaped his views. He doesn’t view military policy as foreign policy.” In his years leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009, Biden saw up close the ways that diplomatic priorities could easily be distorted by agendas set by the military.
As President George W. Bush began pushing for military action against Iraq in 2002, Biden drafted a bipartisan resolution that emphasized diplomacy over military force. But Biden’s resolution was unceremoniously buried, the victim of then-Secretary of State (and former Joint Chiefs Chairman) Colin Powell’s pledge that America’s march to war wouldn’t be a sprint, by Bush’s promise that he would prioritize diplomacy over force, and by military leaders’ reassurances that a war in Iraq was the last thing they wanted. Powell, Bush, and the military all said they agreed with Biden in favoring what Antony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign-policy aide at the time, called “tough diplomacy.” Biden believed them and so voted in favor of giving Bush broad war powers—a stance he has been trying to explain ever since.
Biden attempted to recover his position in 2007, when the Iraq War was already a quagmire. He opposed the Bush administration’s troop surge to rescue the U.S. military’s position; proposed that Iraq be partitioned into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite states; and supported Nouri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister. But his opposition to the surge proved a mistake when additional troops helped stabilize Iraq; his proposal for a partition of Iraq was caricatured by military officers as naive and uninformed; and his support for Maliki seemed ill-advised when the Iraqi leader’s anti-Sunni policies seeded the rise of the Islamic State. This sobering record led former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to issue a harsh, and very public, critique of Biden’s record. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates wrote in his 2014 memoir, recounting his time in government.
Given Biden’s record, it’s hard to disagree. Yet, in nearly every instance, Biden not only favored diplomacy over military intervention, but he tirelessly argued for increased State Department funding—an always popular mantra that has actually done very little to curtail America’s penchant for choosing the military as its tool of choice in responding to foreign-policy challenges. From President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send U.S. troops pounding into South Vietnam in 1965 to the present day, the State Department has played second fiddle to the Pentagon in dollars ($50 billion in spending compared with $740 billion in 2020) and in prestige—where the chairs of the congressional armed services committees wield outsized influence and the once powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee toils in near anonymity.
Biden’s involvement with electoral politics has freed him from dependence on either the military’s largesse or its prestige. “We have to remember,” Adams said, “Delaware isn’t one of those states that is dependent on Pentagon spending. It’s not as if Biden was pounding on the military to provide Delaware with defense dollars.” Indeed, Delaware has consistently ranked near the bottom of states in receiving defense personnel and contract spending—a paltry $651 per resident as of 2019.
It’s hardly a surprise then that, after 36 years in the Senate and two stinging missteps on Iraq, Biden began his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president with a deeply ingrained skepticism about what the military said it could do—and what it could actually get done. That may help explain his strident disagreement with the military intervention in Libya in March 2011, his high-profile disagreement with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May of that year, and his staunch support for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. It also helps explain why, even as Biden polled well with the military during the presidential election, senior military officers retain a wait-and-see attitude on what he will do as president.
Biden’s several well-documented personal conflicts with military officers as vice president shed light on his diplomatic approach to dealing with the Pentagon. The common thread in those confrontations has been the way Biden has insisted on holding his ground while also refusing to resort to scorched-earth tactics.
The most well-reported conflict came in the summer and fall of 2009, when Biden crossed swords with the military during the Obama administration’s review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan—where the conflict with the Taliban had reached a tipping point. On one side of the debate was the senior military leadership (including Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the newly minted commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan), who favored a substantial surge of upwards of 80,000 troops (a “fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign,” as Army Gen. David Petraeus described it) that would tip the war in America’s favor. On the other side was Biden, who argued that the United States should focus on its original mission of defeating al Qaeda, what the then-vice president called “counterterrorism plus.” Through nine intensive meetings that began in September 2009, Biden cast doubts on the counterinsurgency strategy, offered alternatives to it, attempted to recruit like-minded military officers to his viewpoint—and lost. While the military did not get all of what it wanted (Obama settled on 30,000 troops), the president endorsed the counterinsurgency plan, a repudiation of Biden’s views.
Biden’s outspoken opposition to the military’s proposal should have soured his relationship with America’s senior officers, but that turned out not to be true—at least in part. When Petraeus was named the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan in June 2010, Biden suggested they have dinner together. The invitation took Petraeus by surprise, particularly considering their earlier tussle over Afghanistan policy. But the disagreement was hardly mentioned by Biden when the two met in Tampa, Florida, where U.S. Central Command is headquartered. According to published reports, Petraeus served Biden and Blinken (who is now Biden’s secretary of state) sea bass, cucumber soup, Florida salad, and banana flambé—and ended the evening with a tour of his library. The message to Petraeus was obvious and welcome: Biden wasn’t the kind of person to hold a grudge.
That certainly wasn’t true for McChrystal, Biden’s most contentious opponent during the Afghanistan debate. In June 2010, the journalist Michael Hastings documented how McChrystal, who was still rubbed raw by Biden’s opposition to his Afghanistan troop plan, greenlit his staff’s reckless and insubordinate comments on Biden and other Obama administration figures in a controversial profile for Rolling Stone. At the heart of Hastings’s account was an alcohol-fueled screed about Biden, including their nickname for him. Joe Biden wasn’t Vice President Biden, Hastings reported. He was “Joe Bite Me.” While McChrystal scrambled to save his job in the wake of the article’s publication, Biden telephoned half a dozen senior officers to assess whether they believed he should be fired. They did—and Biden endorsed Obama’s decision to replace him. But, as in the case of Petraeus, Biden not only didn’t hold a grudge (“I didn’t take it personally at all. I really, honest to God, didn’t,” he said in July 2010); he invited McChrystal to serve as a military advisor on his transition team.
More than 10 years after Hastings’s revelations, McChrystal supported Biden’s suggestion that retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin be his administration’s first defense secretary. The fact that Biden’s son Beau was a good friend of Austin (and regularly attended Catholic Mass with him) and that Biden himself got to know the general during several trips to the Middle East also helped. Biden was impressed by Austin’s low-key but well-informed approach to the region’s conflicts and his succinct but precise military briefings. Biden was also impressed by Austin’s command of arcane military subjects when the two talked after the election.
Crucial, though, was Biden’s growing conviction that Austin wouldn’t be another James Mattis. Mattis surrounded himself at the Pentagon with many of the same senior military figures who had served with him when he was the head of Centcom, which made the Pentagon’s E-ring (where all the important decisions are made) seem more like the bridge of a Marine Corps amphibious ship than a civilian-run department. “I think it’s pretty clear, in retrospect, that James Mattis wasn’t a very successful defense secretary, even though he was viewed as the original adult in the room,” a senior Pentagon civilian and Joint Chiefs advisor said. “The truth is that while Jim Mattis showed up every day at the Pentagon in a suit, he wasn’t really fooling anyone. He was still in uniform; he was still in command, and he was still General Mattis. That isn’t true for Austin, who has a highly refined sense of the relationship between civilians and the military. He knows where the line is.”
Finally, it was Austin’s support for Biden’s focus on diplomacy over military intervention that most impressed the president-elect, according to a Pentagon official who was privy to Biden’s decision-making process. “Despite Biden’s vote in favor of the Iraq War, he’s not an interventionist, he’s just not, and neither is Lloyd Austin,” the official said.
While Biden’s progressive critics say there’s actually scant evidence of this—they point to Biden’s saber rattling on China and the intervention in Syria—the new president’s first offerings on the proposed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan reflect his focus on diplomacy. “It ought to be clear by now that reupping troop numbers on Afghanistan is not in the cards,” the Pentagon official said. “The first thing out of the box was a Biden proposal on recasting the Afghan government. This is all diplomacy. It’s right in his wheelhouse.” In this sense, some former senior officials and military officers believe that Biden’s first year in office will look a lot like Bill Clinton’s. “Clinton came into White House and appointed Congressman Les Aspin to take over the Pentagon. And the message to Aspin was absolutely clear: Keep these guys under control and out of the headlines while I take care of domestic policy,” Adams said. “‘It’s the economy, stupid’ wasn’t just a campaign slogan. It was Clinton’s policy. My bet is that Biden gave a similar message to Austin. That’s his role.”
Despite polling well with military personnel in the last election, Biden knew that among his first acts as president he needed to shore up his support in the Pentagon. It was one of the reasons he reversed Trump’s ban on transgender personnel and then nominated two women (Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost and Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson) to elite, four-star commands—a popular move inside of an establishment in which about 1 in 5 of those in uniform are female. Just as important, the White House quietly told reporters that, despite pressure from progressives in his own party, the new president would maintain a level defense budget in line with Pentagon spending for 2021—easing fears that, in his first year in office, Biden would slash military spending.
Yet Biden inherits a military that is not only scarred by 20 years of war but, according to a recent poll, losing the confidence of the American people—a stark contrast with previous polls that showed the military was one of the most trusted institutions in the country. While a majority of Americans (56 percent) retain their confidence and trust in the military, that figure has nosedived from the 70 percent registered in 2018—an unprecedented double-digit dip in just three years. The Jan. 6 insurrection, during which the military seemed slow to stop the violence at the U.S. Capitol, is one of the reasons for this loss of confidence. But it isn’t the only one. The military has been hit by a number of high-profile scandals, including one involving a Navy Seal accused of war crimes—whom Trump pardoned—and the spectacle of its most senior commander, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, escorting Trump to St. John’s Episcopal Church during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Both current and retired senior military officers are quietly reflecting on the events of the Trump-Mattis era, when senior military commanders engineered workarounds of Trump policies, including a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and Trump’s proposed May 1 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re in the midst of a civilian-military crisis,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (where I also work). “It undermines, it erodes the single most important pillar of democracy that we have as a nation. That crisis has to be the first thing on the new president’s agenda.”
Eaton, the retired Army major general, remains confident that Biden’s fundamental decency, his experience as a contentious skeptic during the Obama years, his appointment of Austin as defense secretary, his focus on diplomacy over intervention, and his intellect will help resolve the problem. “Smart soldiers will always follow smart commanders,” Eaton said. “And the view in the military is that, no matter what they might think about his policies, Biden is smart.”
Then, too, Biden retains the fears that he expressed during the Obama years—that an inexperienced president might be unduly influenced by the military’s ever confident, can-do mentality. That, in the end, a president can be rolled by those in uniform. Biden’s constant doubts, relentless questioning, and privately expressed niggling at the military’s claims during that era left an indelible impression. “The military doesn’t [screw] around with me,” he reportedly told aides as vice president. “I’ve been around too long.” Put simply, the military and its officers were able to defy Trump because he was in awe of them.
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