This Is No Job for a General

Retired General Lloyd Austin
Brendan Smialowski / Getty

On January 10, 2017, I sat at the witness table looking at the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, all of them, on both sides of the aisle, uneasy about the meaning of a Trump presidency. Senator John McCain had asked me to testify about the proposed change of law that would allow retired Marine General James Mattis to serve as Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense. I was the Republican pick; Kathleen Hicks, one of the stars of the Democrats’ defense bench, was there for the opposing party. But we agreed on the key point: The law that prohibited officers who had retired in the past seven years from serving as secretary of defense should be changed to make an exception for Mattis.

I concluded my testimony this way:

The principle of civilian control of the military is precious, and essential to our form of government. Making an exception twice in nearly 70 years, while keeping the fundamental legislation intact and reaffirming the arguments behind it, will not, in my judgment, threaten that principle but rather reinforce it.

And that is why Democrats and Republicans alike should refuse to change the law yet again to allow President-elect Joe Biden to appoint retired General Lloyd Austin as his secretary of defense.

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Before Mattis, the one exception to the law had been made for General of the Army George C. Marshall, the chief of staff of the United States Army during World War II, and one of the architects of victory. That change, in September 1950, was made under the pressure of emergency: The war in Korea, which had begun in June of that year, had gone badly for its first months while the United States was rushing divisions to Europe to guard against a feared Soviet attack there. The Soviets had set off an atom bomb only a year before, shocking a complacent America. The first secretary of defense, Louis Johnson, was palpably incompetent and had been fired. President Harry Truman believed that the American people needed the reassurance and the massive competence that Marshall could bring, and with congressional consent, the appointment was made.

In 2017, the situation was different, but in its own way dire. I testified:

I have sharply criticized President [Barack] Obama’s policies, but my concerns pale in comparison with the sense of alarm I feel about the judgment and dispositions of the incoming White House team. In such a setting, there is no question in my mind that a Secretary Mattis would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, or illegal things from happening, and over time, helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction.

Marshall did indeed reassure the American people, and Mattis did indeed block, or at least slow down, some of the wild fancies of Donald Trump.

But the exceptions prove the rule. The arguments against putting a general in as secretary of defense remain overpoweringly correct: The legislation requiring a minimum of seven years’ separation (10 would be better) is sound. The Department of Defense is the biggest element in the United States government. It has immense resources of people, money, and machines, and overpowering amounts of violence at its disposal. It is a vital principle of free government that such power not be put in the hands of members of a military elite, no matter how honorable and trustworthy they may be as individuals.

For secretary of defense, Americans should want someone of broad experience and perspective in civilian life, not the product of an all-absorbing institution as total in its way as the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The military way is a noble way. It is also a narrow way. There are practical issues as well: Would a soldier favor his own service in intramural budget battles, or bend over backwards not to? Would he concentrate on policy rather than the kind of tactical management generals feel most comfortable with?

The biggest argument is more fundamental. The secretary of defense represents the armed forces to society at large, and far more important, represents society to the armed forces. Selecting a civilian ensures that civilian perspectives dominate, as they should.

Countries that have routinely selected retired generals as secretaries or ministers of defense have rarely done well—think Germany in World War I or Japan in World War II. Even Israel, which has had rather more luck, has had its politics and its strategy disturbed by the often-bitter maneuvering of general officers who have competed with one another for the top ranks in the most prestigious institution in that society. By contrast, the most successful Israeli defense minister, David Ben-Gurion, leveled out at the rank of corporal in the British Army. And it must be said that neither Marshall nor Mattis was (or perhaps could have been) as successful as leader of the Department of Defense as some of their civilian successors in the one case, and predecessors in the other.

Civilian control of the military is a vital precept: It is embedded in the key documents of the American founding. One of the most damning indictments of King George III in the Declaration of Independence is that “he has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.” The president was made commander in chief precisely so that a civilian, and not a soldier, would be at the pinnacle of the military chain of command.

The waiver of the law for Marshall made sense because of the emergency of 1950, and the sense of peril that hung over the country. A similar amendment for Mattis was warranted because the United States had just elected a malignant narcissist, ignorant of just about all matters required for sound conduct of the national defense, and totally lacking in respect for the boundaries that must circumscribe presidential use of the armed forces. The clearing of Lafayette Square by uniformed troops and Trump’s dragooning of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley into joining him for a swaggering walk to an unmolested church were evidence of his inclinations. It is noteworthy that both Esper and Milley were, in retrospect, appalled by their violation of civil-military norms, and publicly apologized for them.

There is no such emergency now. Austin may have been a perfectly fine general, but there are others as well or better qualified to serve as secretary of defense—Michèle Flournoy, for example, or Jeh Johnson, both deeply versed in national-security matters and of a temperament and disposition to lead the Department of Defense well.

John McCain is dead, alas, but if he were alive and to ask me to testify yet again, I would—but to argue in the strongest terms against waiving this law. Having made good choices for national security adviser and secretary of state, it is a pity that the president-elect has made such a fundamental blunder. Congress should not enable him to make an appointment that would have more in common with the behavior of shaky democracies and authoritarian governments than the most powerful and long-established republic on the planet. It would be a bitter irony for an incoming administration to strike a different kind of blow at the democratic norms that it is so clearly, in other domains, keen to recover and restore.