Biden chose a Black Catholic to lead the Pentagon. It’s a historic pick—and it violates civil-military norms.
In December 2019, I traveled with a group of veterans to Washington, D.C. On a cold winter morning, we stood on the back lawn of the Capitol building and called for members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, to stand up in defense of American democracy. During the Trump administration, a shocking number of norms surrounding both national security and foreign policy had been violated. As veterans, we had previously served to defend American democracy and felt called to do so again.
The nomination of retired Army General Lloyd Austin to serve as President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of defense is historic. If confirmed, he would be the first Black secretary of defense, a momentous occasion for a military that desegregated only 72 years ago and still struggles with a legacy of racial injustice. In addition, many Catholics may welcome a devout practitioner heading the Pentagon.
Having a secretary of defense who so recently served in active duty (General Austin retired only four years ago) breaks an important norm in civil-military relations.
But regardless of his qualifications and the historic nature of the appointment, his nomination presents significant problems. Having a secretary of defense who so recently served in active duty (General Austin retired only four years ago) also breaks an important norm in civil-military relations, at a time when we are still recovering from so many norms being shattered by the previous administration.
Civilian control of the military is a bedrock of American democracy. The National Security Act of 1947 prohibits military officers from serving in civilian roles in the government for seven years after active duty. There is no “waiver” process included in the bill. In order to overcome this prohibition, Congress must pass legislation that, in effect, temporarily lifts the prohibition for a specific person. (The prohibition has been lifted only twice, for retired five-star General George Marshall in 1950 and for retired Marine General Jim Mattis in 2017.) This seven-year ban on appointment to civilian roles in government is a key principle in civilian control of the military. Because now is a time to build back norms and restore American democracy, I oppose the nomination of General Austin.
A life of military service may not create the most effective tools for a retired general to successfully serve as a cabinet secretary.
A military officer who has retired so recently serving as the secretary of defense undermines civilian control of the military in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important is the expectation of the military to refrain from participating in politics. Only recently we saw a stunning and disappointing use of uniformed military personnel, accompanying civilian police, to clear a path for President Trump’s appearance in front of a Washington, D.C., church. During this photo op, he was accompanied by Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in uniform—a co-opting of the general good will Americans feel toward the military in order to sanctify a political event.
General Austin, as a direct appointee of the president, would be serving a political role in the Biden administration. The appointment of a general so recently retired would continue the disturbing trend of using the nonpartisan military to bolster political credentials.
Moreover, General Austin, having served in the military for over 40 years, would have personal relationships with many of the officers he would now be overseeing. Personnel decisions would inevitably be complicated.
Similarly, a life of military service may not create the most effective tools for a retired general to successfully serve as a cabinet secretary. The skills a secretary of defense requires are political, choosing between competing priorities and cultivating relationships with policy makers. These are the exact kind of skills we require officers to avoid when serving in uniform. Service as a military officer is simply not a useful resume item for a person to serve as secretary of defense.
Finally, the normalization of appointing generals to political posts has a deleterious effect on the advice that currently serving generals are able to offer to civilian overseers. The knowledge that active generals may be angling for future appointments undermines the confidence of civilian leaders in the advice they receive from career military officers.
I served in the Marine Corps from 2008 to 2013 as a Marine infantry rifleman. My status as a veteran does not qualify me as an expert on civil-military relations. However, I listen when experts on the topic speak. There is a growing consensus among academics and policy makers with expertise in the field, such as Jim Golby, Rosa Brooks, Kori Schake, Tom Nichols, Eliot A. Cohen, Stephen M. Saideman, Loren DeJonge Schulman and others that this nomination would have significant, long-lasting effects on civilian control of the military in the United States, especially coming so soon after the appointment of General Mattis.
A year ago, I stood up when I believed the norms of United States democracy were being threatened. I think it is important now to stand up again. President-elect Biden should withdraw the nomination of Lloyd Austin for secretary of defense. If the president-elect does not, General Austin should turn down the nomination. If neither of these things happen, the Senate should not pass a special bill overriding the 1947 National Security Act, which would effectively grant a waiver to General Austin and bypass the intent of the law.
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