The issue of granting a waiver to retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be secretary of defense is the most recent case of a deeply rooted problem in the civil-military relationship in America: the gradual militarization of U.S. national security policy.
Because Austin left the military in 2016, less than seven years ago, he must be granted a waiver by Congress to be secretary, and serve in a civilian role. The Senate has already held a hearing on the waiver and his confirmation hearings are set to begin next Tuesday. Lloyd is expected to testify before the House on the issue of the waiver on Jan. 21.
Austin’s policy views are not known in any detail, though some reporting suggests he may be less inclined to support a more aggressive posture towards China, and has in the past, criticized the Saudi war in Yemen.
Nevertheless, the militarization of U.S. foreign and national security policy has been a growing problem over the past 20 years, one that is not relieved by granting another waiver for a retired general.
The issue has its origins in the 1940s and 1950s, when, for the first time in its history, America decided to maintain a large standing army. That policy was part of the creation of a unified Department of Defense, responsible for overseeing a largely military confrontation with the Soviet Union. American troops would be stationed around the world; American ships would patrol global seas; American aircraft could strike at will from the air. The military and the Pentagon became the dominant institution in the national security arena.
Over time, this practice of relying on the military expanded into areas that even the military had not contemplated. When Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs, he asked the military to add counter-narcotics missions to its portfolio. When natural disasters struck, the military became the first responders. The Defense Department became the largest federal agency, a bureaucratic behemoth compared to any other agency, particularly the State Department.
Senior regional commanders became more important than U.S. ambassadors in regions like the Pacific and the Middle East-Gulf. Once deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the military took on missions like governance, economic development, power generation, public relations, and multiple other functions. The U.S. military became the very definition of America’s global engagement.
At the same time, the practice of leaning on the military spread into domestic politics, where retired military officers became “validators” for political candidates and issue groups seeking to burnish their credentials in the national security sphere. Both parties, over time, have made fulsome use of retired “brass.”
The one bulwark that remained was the principle of civilian control, a deeply embedded principle in the Constitution, political history, and the Cold War era. There is a difference between the world of the military and that of policy and politics. Officers and their troops are trained and skilled at military strategy and tactics, but not trained in statecraft. National security strategy and decisions about war and peace are, properly, responsibilities of civilians, trained and responsible for those decisions to Congress and the American public.
When it comes to deciding on going to war and ending war, deploying the military, and providing its funds, civilians are responsible and civilian leadership is essential. The chain of command starts with the president and runs through the civilian secretary to the regional commander. (We have held this principle so strongly that, for years, we urged the Russians to end their practice of making an active duty military officer the Minister of Defense.)
This is why the secretary of defense is intended to be a civilian and a waiver is needed to do otherwise. The waiver for George C. Marshall to become secretary of defense in 1950 was the exception, not the rule. The waiver for retired Gen. James Mattis in 2017 eroded this principle. The Austin appointment, so soon after Mattis, risks eroding it further.
There are very positive and understandable reasons to nominate Austin for the job. The military is 43% minority and the most recent DoD report on racial tensions in the services indicates that more than 30% of Blacks have experienced some form of discrimination. A Black defense secretary sends a powerful message about the need for justice in the nation’s military, as in society as a whole. And there is no doubt he has served the nation well in uniform.
Congress needs to consider this issue seriously in debating the waiver and in the confirmation hearings with Austin. Retired officers should of course not be prohibited from speaking, political campaigning, or even running for office. Many have succeeded —since World War II, Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter come to mind, one a very successful president, the other an extraordinarily successful ex-president. Others have tried and failed. Yes, they traded on a military record in doing so, but the key point is that they have jumped into the civilian crucible, to be tested as any candidate would be — haberdasher, organizer, or activist.
What the Senate and House need to consider is whether it makes sense to further weaken the distinction between civilian authority and military duties. Austin is only recently a civilian. He needs to be asked his views of this relationship and what he would do as secretary of defense to reassure Congress and the nation that civilian authority would be preserved.
In a time of upheaval and serious challenge to our democracy there is a strong case to be made that rapid confirmation of all Biden nominees should be a priority. Rebuilding trust, restoring competence, and moving quickly to restore order and continuity are more critical today than they have ever been since the Civil War.
If Austin is confirmed, he needs to be part of that restoration and rebuilding process. And he needs to reflect on how he would contribute to the de-militarization of U.S. national security policies and processes, and how he would maintain the principle and practice of civilian control.