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Biden Dilemma: Military Or Civil Control Of The Department Of Defense?

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President-elect Joe Biden has yet to name his choice to lead the Pentagon, but disagreement is brewing about what background the next secretary of defense should bring to the job.

A number of front-runners have emerged, including the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Defense Department, who would be the first female chief, and two African Americans, one of whom has the kind of prolific recent military history that lawmakers, veterans and former officials told Newsweek could make the selection problematic.

Media outlets, including Axios and CNN, have showcased Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general who led the U.S. Central Command, as one of Biden’s potential choices.

Other possible candidates include Jeh Johnson, who was secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 after serving as general counsel for the Department of Defense in the Obama administration, and Michèle Flournoy, who has served as a deputy assistant secretary and under secretary at the Pentagon.

I think clearly maintaining civilian control in everything, including the titles and who’s at the top, is a really important thing.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.)

“I think the civilian control of the military is such a unique feature of the American government system, we just take it for granted,” Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), an Armed Services Committee member, told Newsweek.

Kaine said he actually preferred candidates with some sort of military background, and didn’t rule out future waivers such as those granted to Marshall and Mattis, each of whom he referred to as a “great exception” to the long-standing protocol. But he recalled his personal experience as a young man doing volunteer work in Honduras, where he lived under military rule, as influencing his thought on the matter.

“I think clearly maintaining civilian control in everything, including the titles and who’s at the top, is a really important thing,” Kaine said.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, also a member of the Armed Services panel, voiced a similar opinion.

“On the broader principle of civilian control, I really do think it’s important that there be civilian leadership,” Hawley told Newsweek, noting that anyone with too recent of a military background would “have to step away from that and, in the process, seek a waiver.”

He referred to examples over the past four years of Trump’s critics calling for military leaders to speak out against or even defy the president’s policies as “alarming” and “incredibly dangerous,” demonstrating the need for elected civilian leaders to always have the final say.

“I think it’s important that there be strong civilian leadership, and that that continues unbroken,” Hawley said.

This combination of pictures shows Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on November 2, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio and US President Donald Trump on November 2, 2020, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Trump has continued to refuse to accept his rival’s projected victory but has allowed the transition process to formally continue.
JIM WATSON/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

With the country facing a critical juncture in many ways–a tortuous political transition, an ever-worsening pandemic, tensions abroad inflamed by protracted conflicts raging in old battlefields threatening to erupt in new ones–some argue it’s more important than ever to ensure civilians have a tight grip on the most powerful military in the world.

“Right now, I think there are some even-more-powerful-than-usual reasons NOT to put a recently retired four-star, no matter how wonderful [and all those reportedly under consideration by Biden are good people], into the position of secretary of defense,” Georgetown University Law Center professor Rosa Brooks told Newsweek.

Brooks, who served as counselor to Flournoy, Biden’s reported top choice for the Pentagon, during her time as under secretary of defense for policy, looked back on the past four years as deeply damaging to the balance between civilian and military fields, a balance over which she said the defense secretary normally would preside.

The Pentagon is a vast but delicate machine. It can’t run effectively without both military expertise and civilian expertise, and if either is weakened, the whole thing starts getting shakier.

Georgetown University Law Center professor Rosa Brooks

“DoD’s civilian side has been decimated under Trump–tons of empty positions filled by people in acting capacities, for instance,” Brooks told Newsweek.

“Mattis reportedly relied very heavily on his own network of former military subordinates and colleagues–understandable, from his perspective–but the effect was to increasingly sideline civilian experts at all levels within the Defense Department during his tenure. And the Joint Staff and Mattis’ personal staff were increasingly the locus of policy decision-making. That balance urgently needs to be reset.”

Rather than double down on this shift toward militarizing U.S. policy, she said Biden should reset the equilibrium to once again allow civilians to take charge as the law intended.

“The Pentagon is a vast but delicate machine. It can’t run effectively without both military expertise and civilian expertise, and if either is weakened, the whole thing starts getting shakier,” Brooks said. “This is a moment when DoD really needs someone who can come in, hit the ground running, play that vital role as translator and restore that crucial civil-military balance.”

She argued that making the pick in accordance with the terms of the National Security was in the best interest of the country.

“Having a recently retired four-star [general] come in as secretary of defense risks upsetting that balance still further,” Brooks said, “and further demoralizing the civilian side at DoD.”

[6:00 p.m.] This article has been updated to reflect that Politico cited a Biden-Harris transition team source describing the outcome of Michèle Flournoy’s interview with the president-elect.

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