General Override

After years of deferring to the uniformed military on major decisions, presidents are pushing back.

Generals John Allen and David Petraeus stand at an airfield in Afghanistan
Charles Ommanney / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Who lost Afghanistan? Generations of diplomatic and military historians will debate that question, and there will be blame to share among presidents, members of Congress, generals, and statesmen. Here’s an easier question: Who lost the debate over when to leave Afghanistan? The military did.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, exactly two decades after the attacks that incited the American invasion. As Biden weighed his options, top generals argued strenuously against a complete pullout, pushing for leaving a small force behind. Biden rejected the argument. Biden’s hand had been somewhat forced by his predecessor Donald Trump’s earlier commitment to leave by May 1, 2021.

Biden and Trump don’t share a great deal in common, though more than meets the eye. But both men picked a former top general to serve as their secretary of defense. Trump installed generals in other high-ranking posts. These appointments have raised hackles among guardians of civilian control over the military. Their concerns are sincere and wise, but have so far been unwarranted. Even as former generals pepper the top ranks of their administrations, the past two presidents have proved themselves more willing to buck the military.

The military occupies a strange position in American society today—as my colleague James Fallows summed it up several years ago, “We love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them.” Polls show great popular respect for the service branches, even as most of the citizenry remains distant from the military. Add to that the fact that no president since George H. W. Bush, who left office in 1993, has served overseas; George W. Bush famously served in the Texas Air National Guard, while Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Trump, and Biden didn’t serve at all. Perhaps as a result, presidents have been wary of getting crosswise with the military establishment on policy issues, lest they be seen as callow, anti-military, or chickenhawks. This has empowered generals even as it has often had negative consequences for rank-and-file members of the military, who are at the whims of a disengaged, deferential political leadership.

“Legislators and even presidents recognize the sizable risks and limited payoffs of taking on the career military,” Fallows noted. “When recent presidents have relieved officers of command, they have usually done so over allegations of sexual or financial misconduct, or other issues of personal discipline.”

Such a situation does not lend itself to military accountability. In Afghanistan, the federal government knew for years that the U.S. was losing, but political leaders of both parties, civilian and military figures, and elected, appointed, and bureaucratic officers alike insisted otherwise. Military figures and advocates wrung their hands over Obama’s detachment from the military, but he still often deferred to the generals. Obama managed to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq, with some difficulty and over military objections, but he failed to end the war in Afghanistan as he promised. He was even buffaloed into a “surge” of troops to the country in 2009.

This was the context in which Trump won the 2016 election and promptly began appointing generals to top positions, including Michael Flynn as national security adviser, James Mattis as secretary of defense, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security. Several other former top officers discussed roles with Trump. The selections raised concerns, especially among Trump critics who worried that he was trying to seize undemocratic power and use the military to back him up. Civilian control of the military is so sacrosanct that it is written into law; a recently retired member of the armed forces cannot serve as secretary of defense without a waiver from Congress, and Mattis required one.

Despite these concerns, Trump had an unusually frosty relationship with both of his retired generals and the military leadership, even as he described himself as a pro-military president. Flynn was fired within a month of the inauguration in a Russia-related scandal. Kelly was promoted to White House chief of staff, and was happy to work with Trump where they agreed ideologically, but ultimately ended up deeply estranged from the president, who he thought was an unstable nut. Kelly left at the end of 2018, followed closely by Mattis. Mattis, too, had decided that Trump was dangerous, and according to the journalist Bob Woodward, he sometimes just refused to obey orders from Trump, including a demand for a strike against Syria’s president. But Mattis eventually resigned when Trump insisted on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a decision with which the defense secretary, and most generals, vehemently disagreed. The brass also hated Trump’s claim that he’d withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

When Biden defeated Trump in 2020, he considered Michèle Flournoy, who had been on the shortlist for a presumptive Hillary Clinton administration in 2016 and had well-defined views of her own about national defense, to lead the Pentagon. But Biden decided on Lloyd Austin, who had retired as a four-star general in 2016, meaning that he, too, would need a congressional waiver to serve. (Congress, including liberal defenders of civilian control at the Pentagon, grumbled noisily, then overwhelmingly voted to grant it.) Austin’s policy views were opaque, and he was reportedly chosen in part because Biden figured he’d be a pliable leader who would follow orders.

That’s the double-edged sword of appointing generals. If you’ve spent your career in the military, you’re likely to be sympathetic to commanders and to military solutions. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when you have a Predator drone, everything looks like a target for a drone strike. Yet you don’t rise in the military ranks unless you’re good at shutting your mouth and executing. “The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote in a scathing 2007 critique of U.S. military leadership. “In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”

So far—unlike Trump—Biden seems to have gotten what he wanted from his ex-general. Austin has been overshadowed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Politico reports that those two were far more influential on the Afghanistan decision than the defense secretary. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reportedly in favor of keeping special operators on the ground in Afghanistan, in what has become the military’s favorite solution to every problem in recent years, as Mark Bowden reported in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. But when Milley was overruled, he got in line, and a spokesperson told Politico that “senior officers were afforded ample opportunity to give advice.” (As for Flournoy, she expressed deep concerns about a U.S. pullout, while adding, “I think the president was right to judge that the US, had we stayed, was not in a position to win the war.”)

The loudest protests have come from people such as David Petraeus, the retired general and former CIA director. “Ending U.S. involvement in an endless war doesn’t end the endless war,” he said Wednesday on a conference call, Defense One reported. “It just ends our involvement. And I fear that this war is going to get worse.” It’s probably no coincidence that Petraeus’s zenith came at a time when presidents of both parties deferred to top generals like him.

No more. Even as retired top brass are more ubiquitous in the upper echelons of government than they have been for several generations, military leaders seem less able to flex their muscle. One reason the generals are no longer winning battles inside Washington is that they have struggled to win wars outside it, with Iraq ending in a dissatisfying semi-victory and Afghanistan ending in an unacknowledged likely loss. A second is that as the trauma of Vietnam recedes, and accusations of draft-dodging lose their sting, presidents are no longer so worried about offending the Pentagon. If anything, the muted response to Biden’s Afghanistan announcement shows that the American public would rather not think about wars at all. Third, some of the shift is about the specifics of Trump and Biden as presidents. In their own ways, both men are stubborn, convinced that they understand the situation overseas better than military leaders, and conscious of the war-weariness of their political base.

None of this means that Americans can afford to become jaded about the importance of civilian control of the military. The precedent of two recent generals leading the Pentagon must not become the normal way of doing business, no matter how admirable or successful Mattis or Austin might be. But the willingness of two presidents to override military advice is nonetheless a heartening sign when so many other aspects of American democracy feel shaky.