- - Tuesday, December 22, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of Defense, a civilian post, once again raises the myth of civilian control of the military which should have been discarded decades ago.

This is an ill-founded concern dating to the early days of the Defense Department, created by the 1948 National Security Act, best be left to movies like “Dr. Strangelove.”

In the early days of the Defense Department, unfounded concerns about some group of generals “in charge” of nuclear weapons led to legislation removing the development of these weapons from the Defense Department and gave them to the Atomic Energy Commission, later the Department of Energy, where they are now some 75% of the DOE budget. What renders this situation as particularly laughable is that nuclear weapons then needed to be turned over to the military for any use, as the DoE lacks an air force or navy to deliver them.

The law also provides limitations on active duty military serving at DOD and CIA. The nation’s experience since the 1950s clearly demonstrate that such concerns are not only invalid, but they also fly in the face of the large civilian infrastructure in place within the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

Historically, Congress and the public opposed the military operating outside the control of civilian authorities, which they saw in authoritarian and unstable regimes. If confirmed, Gen. Austin would be only the third secretary of Defense to receive such permission, the first being George Marshall in 1950, who also served as secretary of State — one of the most distinguished in U.S. history.

Other generals have previously served in key national security positions, including Alexander Haig, Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft — some who resigned to serve and some who did not. Added to this is Dwight Eisenhower, a five star general, who served two terms as president. None of these dedicated Americans can be seen as posing any threat to the existing civilian infrastructure and all made significant contributions to the security and safety of the nation.

As the law stands, Congress would need to approve a waiver for Lloyd Austin, a retired general, to serve in the civilian post, four years after President Trump’s first Defense secretary, James Mattis, received one. The law requires that an officer be “retired” for seven years without a waiver, and Gen. Austin has only been retired for four years, which in itself is inherently silly — at best.

What magic takes place at the seven year mark that eliminates the experience and mindset of decades on active duty in the military? None that anybody can articulate. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has stated without logic or reason that “a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control of a nonpolitical military.”

Even more striking is the bipartisan resistance on Capitol Hill, where there are growing concerns about another former commander leading the Pentagon in a nation that has a long tradition of civilian control of the military. Some see rejecting a waiver for Gen. Austin, the first Black nominee, as tricky for lawmakers, who four years ago approved a similar waiver for Gen. Mattis. Both the Senate and the House must approve a waiver, but only the Senate votes to confirm the nomination.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, a Republican, said that he did not see an issue with the waiver, and it is possible Gen. Austin will receive more support from Republicans than Democrats. How waiting the statutory seven years somehow a basic principle is nonsense. The law should be replaced, or Gen. Austin granted the same waiver as given to Mr. Trump’s nominee, Gen. Mattis.

Many lawmakers said they reluctantly voted for a waiver for Gen. Mattis to provide a counterbalance to Mr. Trump’s inexperience and bombastic style, and now question the need to violate what they see as a cornerstone of national security policy so quickly again. An approval for Gen. Austin would underscore how deeply Mr. Trump has altered the norms in civilian oversight of the military.

In reality, all of this concern about military “control” is much ado about nothing. The Pentagon, or more correctly the Department of Defense, houses a large civilian infrastructure, led by an appointed and Senate confirmed secretary, supported by a large number of undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and other officials — many of whom are also appointed and confirmed by the Senate who manage a huge policy and procurement bureaucracy. In the case of conflict, they need to manage military and supporting resources to accomplish the objectives set forth by the nation’s civilian leadership.

The DOD’s civilian infrastructure in turn reports to the National Security Council and the president, and coordinates with the military Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian service secretaries and their staffs. It is a massive and largely civilian bureaucracy with a highly complex mission of defending the nation. The idea that appointing a former military officer to act for a limited period as secretary, as all have before, somehow violates a constitutional norm of civilian control in light of how things are actually organized makes little sense.

Gen. Austin, whether he is now called “General” or “Mister,” has a long and distinguished career serving the nation and has demonstrated his devotion to the nation. He needs to be judged by the Senate in confirmation on the basis of his credentials, experience and suitability for the position — not on an artificial and nonsensical notion of how long it has been since he left active duty, and a myth about civilian control of the military which has long since been debunked.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

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