It is just a bit beyond the four year anniversary of the post where I blasted Trump for putting Mattis into the Secretary of Defense position and a few weeks after I posted my key rules for cabinet posts. And we see Biden selecting General (ret.) Lloyd Austin to the position. Civ-mil twitter is infuriated. Why are we so upset? And why is there is so much consensus? Jim Golby covers it well, but I will post here because I want to have a post that I can link to when I regularly refer to this great mistake. And because he does not go far enough.
The basic idea is this: civilians should control the armed forces. This is a lesson learned the hard way during World War I--"War is too important to be left to the generals." Yes, the President is the ultimate commander-in-chief, but he has a lot of stuff to do. The person whose day job is to manage the US military is the SecDef. Indeed, it is his (I wish it were her) job to manage civil-military relations. Why do we need civvies in this job? For many reasons, but mostly due to this basic principal that civilians need to be in charge. Some specific reasons:
- Military officers are socialized throughout their career to develop various attitudes and mindsets that cause them to see the world in particular ways. Mattis revealed some of these by talking about the superior integrity of those in uniform (given the war criminals that Trump has pardoned, maybe not?).
- Military officers are tightly networked at the top, so they will have close person ties with the three and four star officers, making it harder to have the proper distance. The military tends to generate patron-client networks which are not healthy.
- Military officers may have much experience playing politics in the military, but their attitude that they are nonpolitical and nonpartisan sets them up for trouble when acting as SecDef, a very political job.
- Their tendencies towards secrecy and preference for escalation do not serve them well when in the top spot.
The Congress, when it created the SecDef post, required that any SecDef had to be out of the military for at least ten years. That was later changed to seven. They did provide the possibility of a waiver, which has happened twice. Congress waived this in the case of George C. Marshall who not only served very adeptly to run the Army during WWII but served quite ably as Secretary of State. He was a unique figure in US military history.
Mattis was given a waiver four years ago in the misbegotten hope that surrounding Trump with adults would temper Trump's worst impulses. What happened instead? Trump, after being blamed for a raid in Yemen that went awry in his first month, delegated all decision-making to the Pentagon. Mattis and his general/admiral friends escalated most of the wars the US was in. Why? Because there is the aforementioned tendency to want to use all means at one's disposal. It may be a stereotype, but the past four years certainly did not disprove it. Mattis also decreased transparency. He did not restrain Trump from risking war with North Korea in 2017. He did not restrain Trump from ditching the Iran deal. He stood by while Trump signed the Muslim ban. He only slow rolled on decreasing troops in various places and regarding the parade in DC. Mattis was a bad SecDef. And much of it had to do with his attitude of being an uber-general rather than a civilian controlling the military. He let the military make policy. . While I tended to favor that in my year in the Pentagon because Rumsfeld was so awful, it is not a good idea.
One of the most important sets of norms that Biden should be reaffirming and reinforcing is civilian control of the military. I get it that he wants to put a Black American into this spot, and it would be the first time (Colin Powell served as Chairman and as National Security Adviser). The apparent lack of non-military alternative Black Americans is a condemnation of the existing National Security community where "opportunity hoarding" (thanks, Josh) is a thing.
To be clear, there is abundant civilian expertise. One of the basic problems with the US armed forces (and others) is the hard-wired belief that they are not just experts on the use of violence but they are the only experts (thanks to Sam Huntington). But they don't have a monopoly of expertise. And their expertise is often quite limited/directed/biased. We need civilian eyes and ears in the room and hands on the wheel.
This is not an emergency where we need a military officer needs to be in control. Indeed, that is a dangerous signal to send and entirely wrong. In my visits around the world, I found some places where the Minister of Defence is always a retired military officer. And I found that problematic in the extreme. Maybe it makes some kind of sense in some of those places because there is not a vibrant civilian community of experts. But the US has that more so than any place else. Michele Flournoy is not the only civilian who is qualified for this post, although she might be the most qualified.
You know who is disqualified for this position? Any retired admiral or general. I don't think one should ever serve in this post, even if they are ten years past serving. The military socializes so powerfully that it cannot be undone in a decade, or, as someone put it on twitter, a lifetime.
Civ-mil scholars disagree on a lot, but the consensus here is quite strong. I have yet to see a serious civ-mil scholar think this is a good idea. Some wavered four years ago, but none are now, as far as I can tell.
Oh, and this is bad politics as well, as Biden will need to do a lot of work and make compromises to get Austin waived. And if he fails to do so, Biden will have wasted a lot of effort and alienated a lot of folks along the way.