Joe Biden has pitched his presidency as a salve for American democracy ― something more needed than ever after a mob stormed the Capitol in an attempt to deny voters’ will in the 2020 presidential election.
But national security experts and lawmakers, including many Democrats, are increasingly alarmed that one of Biden’s first plans for his time in office threatens a key democratic norm: civilian control of the military.
Biden and his allies in Congress want to quickly confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as the new secretary of defense ― defying a legal ban on soldiers serving in the role until they have been retired for at least seven years. (Austin retired from the Army in 2016.)
That barrier is meant to prevent the impression that the chief Pentagon job is relatively close to that of a uniformed officer and to ensure that the defense secretary looks beyond the military in crafting policy.
Both the House of Representatives and Senate must pass a special waiver for Austin to take the job. They have done that only twice in the history of the modern military, most recently for President Donald Trump’s choice of Jim Mattis in 2017. The Senate Armed Services Committee is will hold a confirmation hearing for Austin on Tuesday and the equivalent panel in the House will host a hearing with him on Thursday.
With Democrats controlling both chambers and many traditionally hawkish Republicans comfortable with the waiver, Austin is expected to get the votes he needs and to take over at the Pentagon in a matter of days.
But ever since news of Biden’s selection broke in December, legislators and analysts have said that while Austin will almost certainly be confirmed, it’s extremely important to be careful about how it’s achieved and what comes next.
“Choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former top civilian official at the Defense Department, said in a Dec. 8 statement. “After the last four years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced. General Austin has had an incredible career — but I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.”
The Capitol attack of Jan. 6, 2021, demonstrated just how vital it is that the U.S. military ― the largest organization in the country and the best-armed force in the world ― abides by democratic norms. When outgoing President Donald Trump and his allies met in December to discuss how to overturn the election, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn reportedly floated the idea of using the military to redo the vote.
That didn’t happen. But it showed that as more and more Americans, whipped up by politicians like Trump and misinformed by social media, become willing to challenge principles like a peaceful transition of political power, the risk of the country’s armed forces becoming involved in political fights is rising.
Austin is not considered to have that kind of anti-democratic view of the military’s role and is widely respected across party lines and the various branches of the U.S. armed forces. Still, after four years under a president who treated soldiers as a personal base of political support, it’s imperative for decision-makers and regular Americans to seriously consider how to maintain a healthy balance for one of the country’s most powerful institutions.
Rules For A Reason
Historically, a key sign of democratic decline is when a country’s armed forces become increasingly powerful and independent of its civilian leaders. The people elect those leaders to reflect society as a whole, not just soldiers; they are supposed to run the show. And a common feature in most failed states is that large numbers of military personnel are guided by personal ambition or extremist ideologies rather than the national interest and constitutionally enshrined values.
Putting recently retired military leaders in the Defense Department’s top civilian job threatens to make those developments more likely in the U.S.
One potential problem is that it could boost the impression that military professionals who are supposed to serve any duly elected commander-in-chief are instead prioritizing their own politics, creating what Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called the perception of Republican generals and Democratic generals ― and the fear that officers might not fully respect the authority of elected officials whose views they do not personally share.
During last week’s Senate discussion of Austin, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) highlighted one of the most alarming aspects of the Jan. 6 attack: the fact that a striking number of the perpetrators had military and law enforcement backgrounds. To her, that seemed like evidence that intense partisanship is already growing to an alarming degree within the armed forces.
An Associated Press review published Friday found that at least 21 of the rioters fit that profile, including a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, another Air Force veteran and a retired Navy SEAL.
Agreeing to a waiver for Austin ― particularly so soon after doing the same for Mattis ― also sends a troubling signal about military service, observers argue. It could convince rising stars in uniform that the pinnacle of their careers should not be earning four stars but taking over the entire Pentagon, because it may come to be taken for granted that a former soldier should be defense secretary.
There are major differences between the role of a defense secretary and the highest ranks of the armed services. While the defense secretary job is fundamentally political, military leaders are meant to advise civilians and then carry out the decisions the civilians make on the basis of that advice and other considerations.
“It is normal and natural for the military to want overwhelming resources, overwhelming force, to be allowed to use that force in as unrestrained a manner as possible, because that is how you win battles with the fewest losses on your own side,” Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the Naval War College, said at last week’s hearing. She contrasted that with political logic: looking beyond the tactical considerations of any one battle or mission to broader national strategies that rely on the military as well as other tools to achieve broader goals.
Analysts warn that a former officer in the secretary role may take too many cues from former colleagues within the military, further reducing civilian influence on national security policy.
In describing her reluctance toward granting Austin’s waiver, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) quoted the expert Biden has tapped to be number two at the Pentagon, Kathleen Hicks. Hicks spoke before the Senate when it was considering granting a waiver for Mattis.
“Four years ago, Dr. Hicks said that our system of civil-military relations is ‘strong enough to withstand any risk a once-in-two-generation exception could pose,’” Gillibrand said. “If we’re granting a twice-in-one-decade exception for back-to-back administrations, what kind of system are we actually protecting?”
The Damage Already Done
In 2018, a bipartisan report on the Pentagon found that “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.” That’s the product of years of problems, per analysts like Kathleen McInnis of the Congressional Research Service; she chalks it up to policies like personnel cuts and prioritizing military tactical advice.
Trump has badly twisted the role of uniformed officers even further. He flirted with deploying the military against protesters, and in his failed effort to steal the 2020 election, spoke of commanders as “my generals,” pardoned soldiers and contractors who committed war crimes and left nearly half of the key civilian jobs at the Defense Department empty.
Mattis, who was widely viewed as a possible force of stability and reason, failed to rein him in, experts and lawmakers concur. To Cohn, it’s clear that both he and George Marshall ― the only other person to ever receive the waiver Austin is seeking ― failed to prevent the politicization of the military on their watch and relied too much on uniformed personnel over civilians.
Austin and Biden could try to win over skeptics. The former general could publicly emphasize that he values civilian control of the armed forces and avoid using his military title, while the incoming president could be careful to avoid Trump-style posturing with the military. And the choice has positive ramifications for other big concerns about the national security world, like the severe lack of diversity among high-level officials. Austin would be the first-ever Black chief of a diverse Defense Department whose leadership is almost totally white.
But the two need to be careful amid a very fragile situation.
“Austin’s nomination will neither heal nor break American democracy by itself, but it is a critical node in the web,” Cohn told the Senate.