Biden's Choice of Another Retired General for SecDef Sends Wrong Message, Experts Warn

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Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III talks with then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III walks and talks with then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. (U.S. Army)

President-elect Joe Biden's selection of a recently retired general to run the Pentagon further threatens the principle of civilian control of the military, many in the defense community say.

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who earned a Silver Star in Iraq and oversaw all military operations in the Middle East, was announced Tuesday as Biden's future defense secretary nominee this week. But Austin hasn't been out of the military long enough to get the job without a waiver -- the same pass awarded to Jim Mattis in 2017 when President Donald Trump named him to lead the Defense Department.

Austin retired in 2016 after heading up U.S. Central Command for three years. A source familiar with Biden's decision to pick Austin over other reported frontrunners is based on their long-standing relationship.

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But law requires defense secretaries to be out of uniform for at least seven years -- a buffer designed to preserve civilian control of the U.S. military. When Mattis needed a waiver under Trump, Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the move should only be approved "once in a generation," vowing not to support similar future requests.

Now, less than four years later, some lawmakers are already indicating they'll approve a waiver for Austin -- a trend Jim Golby, a retired Army strategist and expert on civil-military relations with the Clements Center for National Security, finds troubling. Golby wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times this week titled "Sorry, Gen. Lloyd Austin. A Recently Retired General Should Not Be Secretary of Defense."

"It is another example of the growing trend of political leaders turning to military officers as a political shield," Golby told Military.com. "It is troubling to see elected leaders feel like they need to rely on the military for civilian positions by design.

"I think it means that efforts to get healthy civilian control back on track will likely be thwarted. We needed a reset, and the chance to reestablish oversight and normal processes -- especially in [the office of the defense secretary]."

Biden, in a Tuesday essay in The Atlantic, said he respects and believes in the importance of civilian control of the military -- and so does Austin.

"We need empowered civilians working with military leaders to shape DoD's policies and ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people," Biden wrote. "Austin also knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years. He will work tirelessly to get it back on track."

Biden talked on the campaign trail about the need to depoliticize the military after President Donald Trump installed several general officers in his administration, sent troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, and called on military forces to respond to protests on race relations that erupted across the country this summer.

That depoliticization effort will remain a top priority once Biden is in the White House, the person familiar with his selection of Austin said Monday night.

The military must remain nonpartisan, Rosa Brooks, a law and national security professor at Georgetown University, said.

If leaders know they can move rapidly from military retirement to a senior politically appointed position in government, she said there's the chance they might withhold candid advice when speaking to members of Congress or the White House whose approval they might need in the future.

"That's why Congress initially mandated a 10-year 'cooling off' period before senior military leaders were eligible to serve as SecDef," Brooks said.

That period was shortened to seven years in 2008.

"They recognized," Brooks said, "that there should be plenty of time between senior military positions and having the very same people take up senior civilian political appointee roles."

Mattis was just the second person to get a waiver since George Marshall was granted one about 70 years ago. If Congress gets in the habit of granting waives regularly, Brooks said it defeats the purpose of having that cooling-off period in place.

Golby agrees. If Austin lands before a Senate nomination hearing soon, Golby said he'd like to see lawmakers ask the former four-star why a recently retired general qualifies for the position, and what leadership experiences have prepared Austin for the job of running the Pentagon.

"A big part of what people like about the military today is that it is not as partisan as other institutions," he said. "The more we draw military officers into these types of partisan roles, the more partisan our military will become and the less effective it will be at doing the things we need it to do to protect our democracy."

Having a recently retired general or flag officer in the Pentagon's top civilian leadership role can lead to groupthink within the Defense Department that doesn't tend to foster creativity and innovation, Golby said.

Brooks added that military officers tend to be used to doing things a certain way.

"When people go more or less straight from senior military roles to senior civilian roles, it can be very hard for them to do that effectively," said Brooks, who worked as counselor to former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, long-rumored to be Biden's top choice for defense secretary.

The need to return to clear civilian control within the Defense Department is urgent, she added. After the election, Trump fired former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, replacing him and members of his team with political loyalists. Christopher C. Miller, who's now acting defense secretary, retired from the Army in 2014.

"The Pentagon is a vast but delicate machine," Brooks said. "It can't run effectively without both military expertise and civilian expertise. And if either is weakened, the whole thing starts getting shakier. This is a moment when DoD really needs someone who can come in, hit the ground running, play that vital role as translator and restore that crucial civil-military balance."

Having a newly retired four-star come in risks further upsetting that balance and demoralizing civilian Defense Department employees, she added.

A former defense official put it even more bluntly.

"Regardless of Austin's qualifications for this role, ignoring the civil-military inferno right now is totally irresponsible to a department that needs steady, norm-driven leadership at this moment," the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the situation candidly, said.

Mattis was given a waiver because he was viewed as an exceptional leader in an exceptional moment when few if any other leaders were ready to come forward, the person added.

"We are not in that situation today."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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