No doubt, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to run the Defense Department, is rock solid on almost every professional, career and character attribute that can be measured.
His résumé is impressive, sparkling with experiences and commands that have likely prepared him to lead a massive organization such as the Defense Department. A four-star Army general who retired in 2016, Austin would be the first Black to serve as defense secretary in U.S. history, too, and there is much to be said for that.
But here is the problem: General Austin is a military man.
If we as a country are truly interested in returning to governing norms, as well we should be, Biden should select someone detached from the Pentagon, someone who comes to the job with the mindset of a civilian. Civilian control of our military, after all, is a fundamental principle of American democracy. We should get back to it before trying to move the enterprise forward.
As it stands, Gen. Austin will need a congressional waiver to serve, required for any Pentagon chief who has been retired from active-duty military service less than seven years. Congress passed the related statute in 1947 because we are a skeptical lot – especially when it comes to concentrated military influence in public policy decision- making.
Rejecting a waiver for such a historic nominee – Austin is the only Black to have headed the military’s Central Command with responsibility for most of the places where the United States is at war – would certainly be dicey for lawmakers, especially those who four years ago approved a similar measure for President Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine officer.
But going that route twice in back-to-back administrations from the get-go moves us closer to accepting the practice as common, as normal, as accepted – when it should not be.
Certainly, we understand the reasoning that some lawmakers give for having voted a waiver for Mattis. Seeing Trump in the Oval Office unnerved many, and they wanted a seasoned counterbalance to the new president who, despite what he said at the time, did not know as much as the generals or, frankly, about much of anything else regarding good government and governance.
So, why now, is Biden ready to violate a cornerstone of American national security policy? It is not as though there are not other qualified individuals. It is not as though in all of his years on Capitol Hill and in the White House as vice president that he hasn’t seen how this works best up close.
The Democratic platform, written by delegates to the National Convention this summer, addressed this very topic. “Democrats believe that healthy civil-military relations are essential to our democracy and to the strength and effectiveness of our military,” the platform says. “We will end the Trump Administration’s politicization of the armed forces and distortion of civilian and military roles in decision- making. We will reinstate national security policymaking processes that advance competent civilian control.”
That, in and of itself, should be enough to settle the matter if this new administration is truly interested in doing what is right rather than violating the basic principle that there should be civilian control of a nonpolitical military.
A one-time waiver in the case of Secretary Mattis was made with the belief that the circumstances at the time warranted the exception, not the establishment of a new precedent. Why go further to erode the basic principle of civilian control of the military?
The president-elect should withdraw the Austin nomination – or, barring that, the Senate should vote it down.