By: K. Alex Wilkerson, Legislative Intern
In a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, two expert witnesses were called before the
Committee to discuss the merits and implications of nominating a recently retired military general to the position of Secretary of Defense. A provision of the National Security Act of 1947 requires a Congressional waiver for former military officials to serve as Secretary of Defense if they are within seven years of their retirement from active duty. This provision has been waived only twice in the past, for Generals Marshall and Mattis. In his opening remarks, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) noted that, although he does not believe the requirement for the waiver to be necessary, he is concerned with the potential politicization of the senior military officer corps. He also raised the issue that voting for a second waiver in such a short timeframe could lead to the undermining of the current norm of apolitical senior leadership. Senator Reed (D-RI) stated that he was generally opposed to the waiver, but believes President-elect Biden’s nominee, General Austin, is sufficiently qualified for the role. Senator Reed emphasized the importance of encouraging diversity of opinion within the Department of Defense as well as maintaining effective civilian control of the military.
The first witness, Dr. Cohn of the U.S. Naval War College, acknowledged that it is important for the President to be able to exercise discretion over his political appointments, and that General Austin’s nomination demonstrates an important commitment to racial diversity. However, Dr. Cohn also argued that approving the waiver would exacerbate the imbalance in civil-military relations, which already favors the military. Dr. Cohn stated that the military ought to serve the interests of the republic as a whole, and doing so requires strong institutional means of control. The appointment of a career military official may also serve to reinforce the general perception that military experience is the equivalent of defense/security expertise and that those with military experience are more qualified to govern – a perception which Dr. Cohn believes is dangerous at a time which requires the restoration of the public trust in political institutions. Dr. Cohn also believes that the Secretary of Defense must rely on “political logic” rather than “military logic,” and that General Austin may be predisposed toward the latter, due to the nature of his experience.
The second witness, Dr. McInnis of the Congressional Research Service, stated that control over the military is the shared responsibility of the executive and legislative branches, and that the position of Secretary of Defense is inherently political and unique within the government. Dr. McInnis cautioned against the marginalization of civilian participation in matters such as planning, and the over-reliance on personnel serving in an acting capacity within the Department of Defense. Dr. McInnis also noted that while a great deal of attention is paid to evaluating benefits and quality-of-life metrics for members of the military, no comparable focus exists for the civilian workforce of the Department of Defense. Both witnesses agreed that approving a waiver for a second consecutive administration has the potential to significantly weaken the norm of civilian control over the military.