9 December 2020   Leave a comment

The announcement by President-elect Biden that he will appoint retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to be the next Secretary of Defense has raised concerns about whether the military will have a inordinate voice in American foreign policy. The tradition in the US is to have the military run by a civilian as explained by Amber Philips in The Washington Post:

“Does being cozy with the military, because you recently served in it, make someone unfit to lead the military?

“That’s the theory behind a decades-old practice of making sure that the person leading the Defense Department is a civilian, or has at least been out of military service for close to a decade. And it’s why there’s some initial hesitation, including among Democrats, about President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Defense Department, retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III.

“There’s a law that says the leader of the Defense Department needs to have at least seven years’ distance between themselves and military service. The law, originally passed in 1947 and originally with a requirement that a candidate be retired from military service for a minimum of 10 years, is derived from the concept that the military should serve civilians, not the other way around. (Congress changed the law in 2007 to a seven-year minimum.)

“The roots of this desire to have a civilian head the military run deep. At the outset of the nation, Congress was really worried about how its military could be seized by malign actors who could overthrow their democratic experiment. Founders took pains to put lots of checks and balances on the military, such as congressional reconsideration of defense funding every two years. The big protection was having a civilian control the military.

“’This has been a recurring theme in U.S. history, separation of military and civilian authority,’ said Mark Cancian, a retired colonel and military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘It’s written into the Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. That was one of the complaints we had about the British.’”

Austin will require a waiver from Congress because he has been retired less than the required number of minimum years. He is reputed to be close to President-elect Biden, but has a less than distinguished record of interactions with the Congress over his leadership in the Middle East during the fight against ISIS in Syria. And many question whether he is the right person for the job by those who believe that the major challenges to American foreign policy will be in the Indo-Pacific, specifically with respect to growing Chinese military power.

Biden did publish an essay in The Atlantic defending his choice:

“In his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency. He is a true and tested soldier and leader. I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot. He rose through the Army’s ranks during his distinguished and trailblazing career. He was the 200th person ever to attain the rank of an Army four-star general, but only the sixth African American. He built a career grounded in service to this country and challenged the institution that he loves to grow more inclusive and more diverse at every step.

“He was the first African American general officer to lead an Army corps in combat and the first African American to command an entire theater of war; if confirmed, he will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department—another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure.”

Austin appears to be a second choice for Biden. The initial reports suggested that Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, was Biden’s first choice. I had reservations about Flournoy who seemed to be more hawkish than Biden himself. For example, in July 2020 Flournoy co-authored an essay entitled “Sharpening the U.S. Military’s Edge: Critical Steps for the Next Administration” which gave me pause:

“As a result, the United States can no longer assume that it will have air, space, or maritime superiority early in a conflict, or the freedom of action that this domain superiority allows. The U.S. military will need to fight to gain advantage—and then to keep it—in the face of continuous PLA efforts to disrupt and degrade U.S. battle management networks, while accelerating its own decision making cycle by leveraging artificial intelligence. China’s theory of victory increasingly relies on the notion of “system destruction warfare”: crippling an adversary’s networks at the outset of conflict by deploying sophisticated electronic warfare, counter-space, and cyber capabilities to disrupt critical C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) networks, thwart U.S. power projection, and undermine American resolve.”

Flournoy’s emphasis on Great Power competition with China worries me because it reflects the mantra of many who wish to see military spending rise even more than it has during the Trump Administration. There are many more policies toward China that do not emphasize the need to compete militarily.

But it is difficult for me to pin down Biden’s foreign policy preferences. In earlier years Biden was quite hawkish–his support for the Iraq war in 2003 was deeply troubling to me. Biden seems to now be more reticent about the use of the US military, and Austin is more consistent with that perspective. Many seem to believe that a civilian would fill that role, but I no longer believe that to be true. Robert McNamara in the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations and Donald Rumsfeld in the George W. Bush Administration were very hawkish and were enthusiastic supporters of horribly ill-advised American adventures in Vietnam and Iraq.

Austin strikes me as someone who would be more like Colin Powell who was reluctant to put troops in danger unless they were supported to the fullest extent before the war against Iraq in 1991 started. I personally think that someone who has served in the Army (as opposed to the Navy or the Air Force) considers the risk to ground troops very seriously. President Truman took the matter of combat deaths seriously because of his experience in World War I: “Truman was a war hero. The US suffered 53,402 combat deaths in World War I, many of them from the 129th Field Artillery. Under Truman’s command, Battery D had no combat deaths.”

Additionally, the preference for civilian control ignores what I consider to be a more serious threat to American democracy: the inordinate influence of corporations on military spending, perhaps best exemplified by the misbegotten F-35 fighter plane. It is unlikely that Congress would approve of an academic or a peace activist for the post and support for military spending is often used as a surrogate for the “toughness” necessary for credibility in military circles.

In sum, there are some disadvantages to having Austin as Secretary of Defense but the likely alternatives to Austin worry me. It is far better to go with someone who has the confidence of the new President and does not need to prove their spurs to an audience that sees nothing but profit in military spending.

Posted December 9, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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