President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of retired US Army general Lloyd Austin to serve as defense secretary has triggered a bit of a kerfuffle. And rightly so, in my estimation. Critics complain that appointing yet another recently retired general with lucrative ties to weapons manufacturers—among other things, Austin sits on the board of Raytheon—makes a mockery of civilian control.
But that ain’t the half of it. This appointment should draw our attention to a much larger question: What would genuine civilian control of the Pentagon look like? What should genuinely effective civilian control actually entail? In other words, what can citizens reasonably expect from the very senior civilians to whom very senior military officers report? Because it’s not enough merely to have admirals and generals report to bosses who wear suits to work rather than uniforms.
In his justly famous Farewell Address, President Eisenhower insisted that “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense…so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Ike thereby placed an unduly heavy burden on his fellow citizens. Given the complexity of the existing defense machinery—far greater today than it was when Eisenhower spoke back in 1961—ordinary citizens are not in a position to provide effective oversight, no matter how alert and knowledgeable they may be. We rely on trusted agents designated by the commander-in-chief and approved by the US Senate to occupy positions within (or on top of) the national security hierarchy and thereby to ensure that the proper meshing occurs.
This describes the essential role of the secretary of defense and his (or her) deputies. In other words, rather than simply collaborating with the generals and admirals on matters related to military strategy, capabilities, and readiness, it is also incumbent upon Pentagon civilians to ensure that the pursuit of security aligns with the preservation of liberty at home.
The choice is not either/or. It must be—or at least ought to be—both.
So the role of a defense secretary is not to partner but to direct and correct, to rein in and to reorient. Tension, even a degree of antagonism, is inherent in a healthy civil-military relationship. In that sense, civilian control implies a perspective that looks past the military horizon. The concerns of a defense secretary will encompass those of the joint chiefs of staff or senior field commanders. But they should extend much further.
No doubt Austin is a fine fellow. But there is nothing in his résumé as a seasoned warfighter to suggest that he possesses a capacity for recognizing or managing the inherent tension between security and liberty. Indeed, to expect him to suddenly develop such a sensitivity at this stage of his professional life is on a par with expecting a homicide detective to transition upon retirement to a second career as a human rights lawyer.
But to emphasize: The objection here is not to Austin per se. The problem is with the way that our prevailing conception of civilian control has withered—a phenomenon that the recent decades of “endless war” have exacerbated.
Recall that Austin’s appointment came as a bit of a surprise. The smart money was on Biden anointing Michèle Flournoy to run the Pentagon. Much as Austin, if confirmed, will be the first African American defense secretary, Flournoy would have been the first woman to hold the post. Indeed, in the chatter that preceded this appointment, diversity concerns drowned out any real discussion regarding the attributes desired in a defense secretary.
Flournoy too has an impressive résumé. She, too, is a seasoned warfighter, albeit involving the sort of fights that occur inside the Beltway. An old hand at national security policy, she has served multiple tours in the office of the secretary of defense during prior Democratic administrations. When not in office, she helped co-found an influential Washington think tank generously supported by defense contractors. And she has personally profited from her contacts within the military-industrial complex, precisely as her male counterparts such as Austin routinely do.
So on paper, Flournoy is eminently qualified to serve as defense secretary. And yet, not unlike Austin, she, too, would be the wrong person for the job. She is the embodiment of a militarized civilian, having devoted her adult life to mastering the ins and outs of military policy. Different race and different gender, but when it comes to worldview, she is a veritable Austin clone.
Just as we don’t want retired generals going through the motions of exercising civilian control, so too we should not want militarized civilians filling that role. For a democracy that insists upon playing the role of military superpower, the job is too important.
A nation of 330 million citizens deserves a wider range of choices, representing a wider range of viewpoints and life experience. Yet as long as the present-day eviscerated conception of civilian control continues to prevail, don’t expect any wider choices to materialize.