What the Pentagon Needs From Civilians, and Vice Versa

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Want to turn highly specialized analysis of a complex government strategy document into clickbait? Just add this sentence: “The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.” That lit up Twitter and landed on more than a few front pages.

But the report, produced by the National Defense Strategy Commission, wasn’t intended to shock. It was a careful examination by a bipartisan commission of the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. In addition to the threats posed by the two other military superpowers, the commission report dealt with troop strength and posture, advanced new weaponry like hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, the lingering terrorist threat, and other pressing concerns.

Shortly after it came out, I was fortunate enough to meet with the committee’s co-chairmen, Ambassador Eric Edelman and Gary Roughhead, a former four-star admiral. (Bloomberg Opinion’s own Hal Brands is credited as the lead writer.) We talked about nuclear annihilation and other inspiring topics, and they stressed something I hadn’t put near the top of national-security concerns: civilian-military relations. We tend to forget that the Defense Department employs nearly 800,000 people who don’t wear uniforms, and Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the second George W. Bush administration, was one of them. This week he and I had a separate discussion focused on their role; here is a lightly edited transcript:

Tobin Harshaw: Your commission’s report came out with a lot of analysis and prescriptions. But the press really glommed onto the idea that the U.S. military edge was evaporating and that we could lose a war to China or Russia. Was that overplayed? Did it obscure more vital issues?

Eric Edelman: We produced an 80-page report. Members of the fourth estate are not going to provide coverage of all 80 pages to their readers, nor should they. But in boiling it down, there is always a danger of distorting the message. Having said that, I think everybody on the panel was very keen to convey a sense of urgency to Congress and to the public about the degree to which our defenses have deteriorated - at least our defensive edge, qualitatively, over our near-peer adversaries over the last decade and a half. So it wasn’t wrong for the media to pick up on that.

TH: Of all your recommendations, what should be the highest priorities?

EE: Clearly, adequate, predictable funding for the military is a key part of restoring the ability to compete …

TH: I'm very happy you brought that one up, because that was the topic of the editorial we published coming off the report.

EE: It's not the only thing, but it's an important thing. The Trump administration's budget just dropped, and one of the things that they've got right is they've increased the defense budget by about 5 percent. However, they didn't get the other part right, which is our recommendation that increases should be moved into the base budget, not the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is supposed to be for war-fighting and comes with all sorts of limitations.

TH: But isn't the OCO money a way to get around the spending caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act?

EE: Yes, but the problem is that we shouldn't have the caps there to begin with, because this imposes all sorts of externalities on the department that make it difficult to plan programs over a long period of time. And we need to be able to do that in order to develop these future capabilities. The funding is one piece, but the other piece is knowing what operational concepts we are going to use and how we are going to fight these high-end adversaries.

TH: So let’s get to the topic we’re ostensibly here to discuss: The growing civilian-military divide. In this administration, a number of high-ranking generals came into civilian positions. Not just James Mattis as defense secretary but also two national security advisers and a Homeland Security secretary who became White House chief of staff. How does that affect the separation of powers between the military and the civilians in the Defense Department?

EE: Our major concerns were not about any of the specific folks you mentioned - Generals Mattis, McMaster, Flynn and Kelly. Our concern runs deeper than that. It goes back a number of years, to the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, when we created these very large and very capable staffs that are in essence a kind of permanent government. They do Pentagon tours over and over again. That's not a criticism, just an observation about the Pentagon.

TH: But do you think it's a terrible idea to have somebody formerly in uniform as secretary?

EE: It's not necessarily a terrible idea. There is a law that was passed at the time the military services were unified and became the Department of Defense. Initially, they had to wait 10 years after active duty before taking the civilian job as secretary, and it's now seven years. It was waived for General George Marshall when he became the secretary of defense during the Korean War. And again for Secretary Mattis. So I don't think it’s necessarily a bad idea, but Congress wisely put that requirement in place and it shouldn't be waived lightly.

TH: So I don't know the exact percentage, but the number of civilian employees in the department has risen to over half the active-duty strength.

EE: Well, the end strength of the U.S. military has been declining unfortunately and the size of the civilian complement has been growing in some ways. The growth of the so-called “fourth estate” of civilians is an issue, but those numbers were not the question we were addressing. We were really talking about, at the high level of policy, the number and quality of the voices advising senior officials of the government and the president.

TH: It may be going too far, but some on the civilian side call themselves second-class citizens. Why is it that the civilians don't have the voice that they feel they deserve?

EE: A couple of reasons. The process of presidential appointments (both Senate-confirmed and non-confirmed positions) has gotten extremely cumbersome and we routinely have high vacancy rates in those positions. Another is that we don’t provide the career civilians in the Defense Department with the same opportunities for professional education and predictable career progression that we do for military personnel.

TH: People like General David Petraeus go and get advanced degrees at places like Princeton.

EE: Yes. And there are limited numbers of seats for civilians at things like the National Defense University in Washington and at the war colleges, but by and large, we don't have the same opportunities for a career path for them in, say, the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

TH: So it's a roadmap for the uniformed side. There's nothing like that on the civilian side?

EE: I tried and some of my deputies tried when I was undersecretary, and others have periodically tried, to make efforts in that direction. But we still have not really succeeded and created a path for national security professionals. And there's not even the kind of overlap that would allow you to do this because the civilian side at that level is very short-staffed.

TH: The civilians do have their government job grades, right? Can’t that be a similar roadmap for career advancement like advancing through the ranks?

EE: Well, yes, the senior executive service on the civil service side - and those very senior employees - are essentially sort of general officer equivalents of the military side. But again, it’s the lack of opportunities and the short-staffing that is really a problem.

TH: What is the most valuable thing that civilians in the Pentagon do?

EE: Because it's such a large institution it's difficult to generalize, so let me just speak from my own experience. When I was undersecretary, I had a series of directors of the J-5, the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that dealt with planning and policy. I worked very closely with Lieutenant General John Sattler, a three-star Marine general who had been the commander of the forces that retook Fallujah in Iraq back from jihadists in 2004. John brought enormous battlefield experience and credibility.

I had just come in from being ambassador to Turkey. And so when we worked on a lot of policy issues, I was able to bring the political perspective of how a region that joined Europe and the Middle East looked from a different side of the line than John had been on. We had a lot of respect for one another. We brought different things to the table. I think we helped advise Secretary Bob Gates on a variety of issues in a way that made him more effective when he would go into interagency discussions with his counterparts - Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, and Condi Rice, the secretary of state. Not that Secretary Gates needed a whole lot of instruction because he was a 40-year veteran of the national security process.

TH: What were the biggest issues on the strategic planning and policy side you were dealing with at that time?

EE: We were dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq and particularly the nuclear reactor that was being built in the Syrian desert by North Korea, which ultimately was bombed by Israel. As you can imagine, in light of the flawed intelligence that we encountered with regard to Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction, we were at great pains to really work the intelligence community through its paces to make sure we understood exactly what we were dealing with.  

TH: Where else did these two worlds, civilian and military, work together?

EE: There was piracy off the coast of East Africa. There was the decision to put missile defense into Central Europe to deal with the long-range Iranian missile threat. There were any number of issues with military dimensions that had to do with weapon systems and capability. But they've also got lots of foreign policy and political sensitivity - dealing with allies and other actors in the international system.

TH: In that regard, the State Department in this administration has been greatly diminished. Trump is hostile toward it almost. But that didn’t start under Trump. What happened, and what can we do to make the State Department more relevant again?

EE: We've been involved in military activity almost continuously for 18 years. And diplomacy in wartime tends to take a bit of a backseat. It's not absent, by the way. There's diplomacy throughout all wars; in terms of maintaining your coalitions it’s very important. But it's not as prominent as it was. If you think back to the role that Henry Kissinger and George Shultz played in the Cold War, diplomacy seems to have declined.

Even after the Cold War but before 9/11 we had a lot of military activity - in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in Haiti. And over time, a couple of things happened. One was that the military instrument became something that people grabbed onto very quickly as a solution to policy problems. Bob Gates used to have a great line about interagency meetings: He said the State Department would come in and say, “We need to use more military power”; and the military would say, “No, we really need covert action”; and the CIA representatives would say, “No, actually we need more diplomacy.” And, like all jokes, there's an element of truth in that.

But also I think that after the Cold War ended, the U.S. was in such a prominent position that we really didn't have to persuade people of very much of anything. I wouldn't say that we engaged in a policy of diktat. But we could be pretty dismissive of others’ positions and just insist on getting our way and not many people were going to argue with us. This was the period when the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, described the U.S. as a hyperpower, not just a superpower.

TH: Things look very different now.

EE: We're now back in a world of great-power competition rather than a world of the U.S. as the sole superpower. I still think we have an enormous amount of juice left if we use it properly. I think we have great opportunities to shape the environment if we use it properly. But it's going to take an effort to actually replenish the diplomatic corps and train them in the uses of American ability to persuade and not just dictate. And that's going to take some time because you can't just take people who had 20 or 30 years of experience doing this and replace them with people who have only 10 years. Some of this is just wisdom accumulated through experience.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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