Don’t Bend the Rules for Biden’s Pentagon Pick

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The five members of President-elect Joe Biden’s national-security team who will be considered by the Senate today are all calm, competent professionals with stellar qualifications. Senators should reject one of them, though: proposed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III.

Austin is a former general who retired from the military less than seven years ago. That actually makes his appointment illegal. For him to assume the post, both houses of Congress will need to pass legislation making an exception for him. Only twice since 1947 have similar laws been passed, for George Marshall in 1950 and Jim Mattis in 2016.

The restriction on former generals leading the Pentagon was instituted in 1947 when the Defense Department was unified and the Cold War necessitated large standing military forces, which the U.S. had not previously maintained beyond wartime. The goal was to maintain the strong tradition of civilian control over the defense establishment and prevent excessive deference to the uniformed military. Breaching the rule a second time in only four years would undermine these crucial norms.

Biden’s argument for taking such a risk is weak. Of the five reasons the president-elect outlined, three are so anodyne that they’d apply to virtually any confirmable nominee. Austin, Biden said, is determined to “ensure the well-being and resilience of our service members and their families,” “do whatever it takes to defend the American people,” and always remember “that our military is only one instrument of our national security.” 

The other two reasons were Austin’s readiness to “immediately quarterback an enormous logistics operation to help distribute Covid-19 vaccines widely and equitably” and to “make sure that our armed forces reflect and promote the full diversity of our nation.”

The first claim is puzzling. The military doesn’t appear to be responsible for vaccine distribution in the Biden pandemic response plan. Even if it were, the Pentagon is full of military planners able to craft logistics flows. Their boss doesn’t need such expertise.

Moreover, while the U.S. military is good at logistics, it’s not uniquely good. The U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express Corp. and Amazon Inc. know an awful lot more about domestic distribution than does the military. If logistics are the main issue, Biden should hire Jeff Bezos as Defense Secretary. Falling back on the military for things that civilian arms of government or private business can do only further encourages atrophy of our civilian competencies. 

Diversity is the strongest line of argument in Austin’s favor. The video the Biden team released to build support for the nomination is an emotional appeal listing all the racial firsts Austin has accomplished. And representation is profoundly important: It matters for us all to see public figures that represent the fullness of our national experience. 

In a country of 331 million people, however, there are dozens of well-qualified Black candidates for Secretary of Defense. One was among the reported finalists. Indeed, if only one other Black candidate was under consideration, the Biden transition arguably cast its net much too narrowly.

In his nominees, Biden seems to be favoring people with whom he has long-standing relationships. That’s not the worst way to choose a cabinet. Having worked in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, I can attest that assembling a team that works against each other is sub-optimal in many ways. And it’s understandable that Biden would have a sentimental attachment to Austin, who commanded Biden’s late son Beau when he served in Iraq. But arguing that the pre-existing relationship between Biden and Austin justifies violating the norm is like saying that because you know the cop, the speed limit doesn’t apply.

As a scholar of civil-military relations, I very reluctantly supported a waiver for Mattis in 2016. I would not have done so if I hadn’t feared Donald Trump was a danger to constitutional governance domestically and to the liberal order internationally, and was surrounding himself with people manifestly unqualified for their positions and likely to be reckless in the performance of them. Thankfully, none of those conditions apply to the Biden administration. 

To argue that if one supported a waiver for Mattis, one must also support one for Austin is to argue that Joe Biden poses no less a threat to our country than Donald Trump. That just isn’t true.

Our country would be better served by casting a wide net and looking for civilians who have diverse experiences and a strong conception of the fundamental organizational and political skills the job requires. 

The most consequential Pentagon chiefs were all civilians. Elihu Root, Secretary of War to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, was more responsible than anyone else for the development of a modern and professional U.S. Army. Root had been a senator from New York and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. As President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton marshalled the vast industrial capacity of the Union during the Civil War. He’d been Attorney General before Secretary of War. 

By contrast, Marshall, who was revered for his achievements as Army Chief of Staff and as Secretary of State, was not a particularly good Defense Secretary, leaving President Harry Truman to deal with blatant insubordination by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. 

By putting recent veterans into the role, we are prejudicing the skills of the military over those of civilians, depriving the Pentagon of the diversity of experience that leads to better problem-solving. The Biden Administration has obliquely acknowledged as much, nominating a civilian, Kathleen Hicks, to be Austin’s deputy. 

Rather than forcing through Austin’s nomination, Biden should get Hicks confirmed and name her the Acting Secretary. He could then withdraw Austin’s nomination and widen the search for a more experienced civilian candidate to be Secretary of Defense. The Pentagon, and the country, would be better off for it.

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

Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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