Over the past five weeks, Joe Biden has navigated the tricky waters of being president-elect during a pandemic — with a toddler for a president — exceptionally well. He managed Trump’s efforts to subvert the presidential succession with aplomb, acting like the adult in the room and showing impressive patience when warranted. He has announced a bevy of White House staffers and Cabinet secretaries who are noteworthy in how much experience they possess, compared with the crew of impostors currently running the executive branch. Even the inauguration plans seem to be going well — traveling by train from Delaware is vintage Biden and the kind of retail move that helps explain why he and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris received more than 81 million votes.
Last night, however, it was widely reported that Biden had selected retired four-star Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to be his secretary of defense. In doing so, Biden is putting his most important campaign promise in jeopardy. He is also worsening a civil-military situation that was already not good.
To be clear, this is not a knock on Austin, who by all accounts had a distinguished military career. Politico reports that “in picking Austin, Biden has chosen a barrier-breaking former four-star officer who was the first Black general to command an Army division in combat and the first to oversee an entire theater of operations.” Furthermore, “Biden also trusts Austin, as they worked together when Biden served as vice president and had a large foreign policy portfolio.” These are not insignificant points in Austin’s favor.
The problem with this selection is twofold, however. The first is that Biden ran explicitly on a platform of restoring American norms and values. That was at the core of his announcement speech. In accepting his party’s nomination last August, he said: “Character is on the ballot,” adding, “I take very personally and I have the profound responsibility of serving as commander in chief.” In his first speech after winning the presidency, he said, “I sought this office to restore the soul of America. … We will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” Biden made other campaign promises, but his central one was a return to normalcy from the norm-shredding Age of Trump.
In picking Austin, however, Biden is, well, following Trump’s lead in breaking a pretty important norm. Austin only retired in 2016, meaning he has not been out of the military for the required seven years, requiring Congress to approve a waiver. They have only done so twice before: for George Marshall and Trump’s first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis. As my Washington Post colleagues report, “Austin’s selection will prompt a congressional debate over whether enough lawmakers would support a waiver from a law that mandates that any service member must be out of uniform for at least seven years before being eligible to serve as defense secretary. The law is meant to ensure civilian control of the military.”
It’s that last sentence that keeps gnawing at me. Even before he is sworn in, Biden is bending an important norm. Another worrisome quote comes from Politico’s story: “the Biden team saw Austin as the safe choice, said one former defense official close to the transition, adding that the retired general is believed to be a good soldier who would carry out the president-elect’s agenda.”
Presidents should expect their defense secretary to, in the end, follow their orders — but also to act as an independent voice of caution when the president wants to use the military in questionable ways. Mattis struggled in the role because he still identified himself as a Marine general, and there was widespread criticism of how he staffed the civilian side of the Office of Secretary of Defense. There are legitimate concerns that Austin, whose entire adult life until 2016 was spent in the Army, will suffer from the same flaw.
The larger problem is the signal that appointments such as Mattis’s and Austin’s send to ambitious national security folks. Back in 2016, my concern was that the more retired generals received senior political appointments as civilians, the greater incentive uniformed officers had to curry favor with politicians — in other words, to act politically: “In the long term, it is dangerous to signal that the best way to become secretary of state is to have achieved the rank of a general officer. … Diplomats, intelligence officials and even out-and-out politicians bring other points of view to the table. A team of generals might be talented, but it’s also one-dimensional.”
In the four years since, my concerns have not abated — indeed, the opposite is true. Trump flouted a lot of civil-military norms. Experts on civil-military relations are now concerned, to say the least. The politicization of the retired general officer corps is a growing problem. This has not stopped president-elect Biden’s reliance on retired generals to service his transition. Retired generals have earned the nation’s respect, but they desperately need to be acclimated to civilian life before being asked to run a large government bureaucracy that does not consist solely of uniformed soldiers.
Perhaps I am overreacting. Trump’s generals served him poorly for myriad reasons; it is possible, indeed even likely, that Austin is made of sterner stuff. Equally important, Biden is not Trump. I do not fret about a president Biden trying to use the uniformed services to, say, disperse a peaceful protest.
Still, this move cuts against Biden’s core promise during the campaign to restore the soul of America. Part of that soul is civilian control over the military. There is a reason that the seven-year rule was put in place. In breaking that norm, Biden forces me to worry about what other norms he will leave broken in the wake of Trump.