As news broke yesterday evening that President-elect Joe Biden had selected Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense, I found myself experiencing a profound sense of déjà vu. Like Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, Austin will need a congressional waiver. Federal law requires defense secretaries to have not served in the military for at least seven years, a stipulation neither Mattis nor Austin met at the time of their nomination.
Mattis got a waiver. Austin should not. Civilian control of the military is at the heart of our republic. The Founding Fathers, for all their faults, understood the importance of subordinating the military to the elected government. It is why the commander-in-chief is the elected President and not the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This rationale was fully understood by the Congress members who drafted the National Security Act of 1947, which created the Department of Defense. They wrote into the law a requirement that any Defense Secretary be ten years removed from active military service unless they receive a Congressional waiver (that was reduced to seven years in 2008).
As of now, only two nominees have received such a waiver: George Marshall in 1950 and James Mattis in 2017. I can already hear my fellow Democrats screeching about fairness. Why should Mattis get a waiver but not Austin? In 2017, I felt that Mattis should not have received a waiver. However, as Jim Golby argued in the New York Times, there were extenuating circumstances that might have warranted a waiver for Mattis — chiefly Trump’s utter lack of experience in the field of national security. Biden, on the other hand, is the most qualified foreign policy and defense president we will have had since Dwight Eisenhower.
Either way, a waiver is meant to be an exception, not a rule. Biden’s pick of Austin threatens to not only erode the tradition (and law) mandating civilian control of the Pentagon, but to establish a pattern of defense secretaries being pooled from the military.
None of this is to say that Austin — a former CENTCOM commander and retired four-star Army general — isn’t qualified or experienced enough to run the Pentagon. No doubt he can return order, efficiency, and credibility to a Defense Department severely damaged by Trump. He would also be the first Black chief at the Pentagon. But his nomination goes not only against the spirit of the law and decades of precedence, but against the very essence of our democracy.
The United States tends to think of itself as exceptional, but the past four years under Trump have shown we are no different than most nations. Trump has done more to blur the lines between politics and the military than any modern president. He went so far as to drag the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff along for a photo-op after allowing protesters to be tear-gassed.
But even Biden has previously suggested the military might be called on to drag a recalcitrant Trump from the White House, involving it in an electoral dispute. All of this prompted General Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to apologize for his role in the photo-op and promise Congress the military would not be involved in the 2020 election. That is an extraordinary thing for a top general to have to say and it is a troubling sign for our democracy.
To be sure, it is a positive sign that Milley understands the role the military plays and the importance of civilian control over it; I have no doubt Austin does, as well. But the increasing line-blurring and the attempted politicization of the military by Republicans and some Democrats is deeply concerning. History shows us that when the military begins meddling in civilian affairs — whether invited by politicians or not — it is the rule of law that suffers.
There have been scores of successful military coups around the world since the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1973, Augusto Pinochet overthrew the civilian government of Chile, establishing a military junta. In 2014, the Thai military staged a successful coup against the caretaker government. Charles de Gaulle was installed as head of state in France in 1958, following threats from generals to invade Paris unless de Gaulle was made president.
Of course, General Austin’s nomination is not a harbinger of an impending military dictatorship. It is, however, a sign of the continued weakening of the firewall that has long separated civilian defense and national security policy from the military. It is one more crack in the foundations of the institutions which have served the American people so well for so long.
With rampant civil unrest, an economy in shambles, and a deadly pandemic raging uncontrolled, the nation craves leadership and order. It is understandable that President-elect Biden would look to bring the most knowledgeable and qualified people in to help right the ship of state. But when it concerns defense, those people should come from the civilian world, not the military. Democracy depends on it.
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