A Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Will Widen the Civil-Military Gap

Photograph Source: United States Army – Public Domain

Civilian control of the military has been a central tenet of democratic governance.  The trenchant warning from retiring President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the dangers to democracy from a permanent “military-industrial complex” is the most memorable presidential farewell warning in our history.  The civil-military gap has widened over the years, starting with the controversy over the Vietnam War in the 1970s; the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the 1980s; and the Global War on Terror in the wake of the attacks in New York City and Washington in 2001.  Our bloated defense budget, which accounts for more than one trillion dollars when all departments of government are included and two-thirds of discretionary spending, contributes to the belief that only a professional military class can manage the sophisticated technology of the Pentagon.

The end of the Cold War in 1991, which followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union itself, should have challenged the notion that the United States requires sole military predominance over the entire global community.  We never debated the need for hundreds of U.S. military bases and facilities the world over; modernizing nuclear weaponry; and the end of civilian supremacy in the national security bureaucracy.  The wretched Trump legacy even includes $15 billion for a Space Command that creates a new danger.

Instead, we have witnessed bipartisan majorities for increased defense spending; the appointment of retired and even active duty general officers to positions that should belong to  civilians; and the military domination of national security and intelligence policy.  In recent years, there has been too much military influence in U.S. decision making as too many active and retired members of the military have become national security adviser, secretary of defense, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and even the director of national intelligence.  The best secretaries of defense were civilians, such as Harold Brown and William Perry, who were knowledgeable about research and development, weapons technology, and disarmament.

President Eisenhower warned that he “feared the day” when his successors in the Oval Office had no real understanding of the military or lacked confidence in dealing with the military.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, virtually every U.S. president has justified Eisenhower’s fears—either caving in to the military (our Republican presidents) or being intimidated by the military (our Democratic presidents).  Once upon a time, general officers did not cast ballots; now they lead cheers at presidential conventions against the opposition.

President-elect Joe Biden should be the exception to this rule, but he has contributed to increased militarization with the nomination of retired General Lloyd Austin to be secretary of defense.  For the eight years of the Obama administration, Biden tried to get President Barack Obama to stand up to the military; to avoid being boxed-in by the military; and to reduce the operational tempo of the military.  Biden opposed the use of force in Libya; the expansion of our military presence in Afghanistan; and increased defense spending.  The tension between Vice President Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which found Gates taking cheap shots at Biden in his memoir “Duty,” was a problem during the Obama administration.

For these reasons, it was surprising that Biden selected Austin to manage the record-breaking budget of the Department of Defense.  Successful general officers certainly have the knowledge and organizational skills required for leadership, but addressing the political and geopolitical problems of national security decision making is not typically part of their skill sets.  There is military strategy and grand strategy; it is the rare general who can claim knowledge of both.

From my 18 years of experience teaching at the National War College, moreover, I observed that general officers typically are unfamiliar with the Washington environment and rarely know the civilian players in the national security community.  Therefore, when Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was made national security adviser, he immediately turned to a series of “battle buddies,” former colonels, to staff the National Security Council.  His successor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, never established influence with the Department of Defense, which was headed by a four-star retired general, James Mattis, who ignored his three-star colleague in the White House.  Like Flynn, Mattis relied on “battle buddies” in the Pentagon, not his civilian staff.

General officers resist arms control and disarmament agreements.  This is logical, given that their mission is to defend the United States and, to that end, seek to expand arsenals—not restrict them. In the 1990s, they successfully resisted President Bill Clinton’s efforts to enter various UN agreements that would have created a comprehensive test ban, the end of land mines, and U.S. entry into the International Criminal Court.  In the 1970s, they opposed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  Today, they are dragging their heels on withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, where our political and military losses are obvious.

Meanwhile, Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, is allowing oped writers to argue for Austin’s waiver and confirmation. In his Dec. 14 essay, “Austin’s Army career will inform his leadership,” former senator and secretary of defense William S. Cohen argued for the waiver and confirmation for General Austin as defense secretary. Cohen points to Austin as a “thoughtful and disciplined person of integrity,” who will improve morale at the Pentagon and send a “powerful signal to America’s men and women in uniform.”  This is probably true.  More importantly, however, in 1997, then secretary of defense Cohen failed to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accept President Bill Clinton’s support for joining the International Criminal Court.  At that time, Cohen warned about a “chasm developing between the military and civilian worlds, where…the military doesn’t understand…why criticism [of the military] is so quick and unrelenting.”

The most ironic oped was written by Admiral Dennis Blair, who had a short and unsuccessful run as Director of National Intelligence because of his inability to understand the civilian role within the national security community.  He crossed swords with CIA director Leon Panetta and lost. Blair correctly noted the typical reluctance of uniformed military leaders to advocate the use of forces overseas, but failed to mention the reluctance of general officers to withdraw force when the mission cannot succeed, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the past fifty years. Blair failed to recognize that civilian control of the military is designed to ensure a comprehensive view of national security problems and to prevent a narrow view that relies too heavily on defense spending and increased use of force throughout the world.

General Austin’s operational and tactical skills are significant, but not central to the larger interests of a secretary of defense, who must weigh the costs and benefits of using force against domestic and diplomatic elements that contribute to U.S. strength and security. We need a defense secretary who is willing to control the excessive resource demands of the Pentagon, and resist the demands of senior military commanders.  In recent years, too many presidents and congressmen have given the Pentagon and the uniformed military too much influence over when, how, and where the military should be used, creating an overseas deployment that has far exceeded our national security requirements. In view of the misuse of military power over the past two decades, we don’t need the worst-case thinking of a former general officer blocking the need for enhanced diplomacy and disarmament to correct the U.S. position in the global arena.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.