Another recently retired general appears poised to become defense secretary, but outside experts warned Tuesday that both lawmakers and Pentagon leaders will need to emphasize the importance of civilian control of the military to protect public faith in the institution.
“It is a short step to the belief that only professional military officers know how to govern military forces,” said Lindsay Cohn, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“Choosing a recently retired general officer and arguing that he is uniquely qualified to meet the current challenges furthers a narrative that military officers are better at things and more reliable or trustworthy than civil servants, or other civilians.”
Tuesday’s hearing comes one week before the scheduled confirmation hearing of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for his next secretary of defense. If confirmed, the former Army four-star and head of U.S. Central Command would be the first African American to serve in the role.
The president-elect says Austin has the experience and character needed to lead the Pentagon.
But Austin needs a waiver from the House and Senate to serve in the civilian role, because he retired from the military in 2016. Current law mandates that nominees must have seven years of separation from the military to be eligible, to ensure clear distance between military and civilian leadership responsibilities.
Congress approved such a waiver in 2017, to allow retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis to serve as President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.
Lawmakers appeared poised to do it again. Several Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee said they support the idea, and prominent Democrats in the House and Senate in recent weeks have praised Austin as a worthy pick for the national security role.
A few Democrats on the Senate committee said they were “torn” on the issue, but awaiting more information from the Biden administration. Numerous supporters of Austin, including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have argued that Austin’s unique background more than justifies the waiver.
But outside experts said that lawmakers should be wary about the message sent by approving another waiver in the span of just a few years.
“It does weaken the norm, and I think that that should be an issue of concern for you as you make this decision,” Cohn said.
“This is reinforced by a larger situation in the American public, which has a worrying trend of over-deference to military expertise and military experience … a sort of willingness to turn over decision-making to the military. It’s something that needs to be addressed going forward.”
Kathleen McInnis, a specialist in international security for the Congressional Research Service, said some of those concerns can be mitigated if Biden surrounds Austin with civilians in Pentagon leadership who bring in views different from career military retirees.
But, she said, that won’t erase the concerns.
“The military is a nonpartisan institution, but the Department of Defense and the secretary of defense is part of a political administration,” she said. “And so, there is a question that can arise if we have military officers transitioning into these inherently political roles.
“Does that start creating questions in the American people’s minds as to whether or not the Department of Defense … is truly non-partisan? Those are fair questions to explore.”
Neither McInnis nor Cohn said approving a waiver for Austin would be irrevocably damaging to the military or the country. But they both warned a vote in favor of a waiver cannot be seen as the end of the issue, but the start of a broader public conversation about the importance of civilian control of the military.
On that point, senators offered a mixed response. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said that while questions about Austin’s qualifications are important oversight work, “I don’t think anyone believes that civilian control of the military is seriously at risk from Austin’s nomination.”
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he will oppose the waiver even with his confidence in Austin because the precedent sets a “very serious challenge” for lawmakers.
“I want to make sure that we avoid the perception of Republican generals and Democratic generals,” he said.
Austin is scheduled to appear next week before the Senate Committee his formal confirmation hearing and the House Armed Services Committee to discuss the waiver issue. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said specific timing is still being worked out.
Biden is scheduled to be sworn in as president on Jan. 20. Campaign officials have pushed senators to move quickly on his nominees — particularly his picks for key national security spots — to ensure a smooth transition into the next administration.