Biden Following Trump’s SECDEF Example: Good for America?

If media reports are to be believed, then President-elect Biden will nominate retired Army general Lloyd Austin for confirmation as his Secretary of Defense. General Austin’s nomination will not only require Senate confirmation, but it will require the entire Congress to approve a waiver so Austin can assume the office sooner than the law allows (it now stands at seven years). This is a case of déjà vu. Four years ago, President Trump nominated retired Marine general James “Maddog” Mattis to become his SECDEF. Like Austin, his nomination required Congress to waive the law that allowed a retired general to assume to position before the required moratorium. No one should question the ability of these two men to run the Department of Defense. The question is--should they?


Civilian control of the military remains a hallmark of American cultural heritage. Some trace its origins to Whig ideology that started in Britain and made its way to America. Whigs, having witnessed a Civil War and a Glorious Revolution, believed that large standing armies were a threat to democracy. Upon taking command of the Continental Army, the Continental Congress ensures General George Washington knew he would observe such orders and directions . . . as you receive from this, or a future Congress of these United Colonies.” Writing in defense of the Constitution, James Madison assured the American public in Federalist 46 that the federally controlled standing army would never outnumber the militia that states could raise. Hamilton, also contributing to the Federalist Papers, wrote in Federalist 69 that the civilian executive of the nation, the President, would be the Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s federal forces. These examples are but glimpse into a heritage of reassuring the American people that civilians would always maintain control of US forces.

Washington Assuming Command of the Army

Civilian control of the armed forces became more acute in the nuclear age. Catastrophic weapons effects coupled with reduced timelines for command decisions, given the advent of the missile age, necessitated the need for the President to receive thoughtful counsel from more voices than his/her military officers. Writing in his seminal work on nuclear deterrence, Strategy in the Missile Age, Bernard Brodie stated that, There exists in America no tradition of intellectual concern with that border area where military problems and political ones meet. Although ideally the military approach to strategic problems needs to be extended and leavened by the relevant insights of the statesman, such insights are usually undeveloped among those civilian officials or politicians with whom the American military may have to deal.” In this book, Brodie argues that military ethos tends towards offensive action and winning the war. A mindset Brodie warns against in the nuclear age. Service secretaries, he feared, would simply echo the views of the military underneath them. Is the Secretary of Defense the border guard who does not mimic the military mind but has the wherewithal to withstand the military? In Brodie’s time, he saw one former four-star general, George Marshall, become the SECDEF. Secretary Marshall needed a waiver as well to serve in the post, and many believed he should have been more engaged when one of the most critical cases of civil-military relations came to a head between Gen MacArthur and President Truman. Did his previous relationship with MacArthur prevent him from taking a more active role to resolve the dispute? Now, sixty-six years later, the US could have two waivers and two generals in the SECDEF seat in back-to-back administrations. Can a retired high ranking general officer, less than seven years out of office, who served with many of those still in uniform, offer the President sound advice void of military loyalties?


Secretaries of Defense have typically not come the military ranks. Some of the more notable Secretaries—McNamara, Perry, Rumsfeld, and Gates—had very little, if any military experience, but successful careers in either politics or business. The Secretary of Defense must advise the President, manage budgets, cut programs, interact with Congress, and set policy. Can someone less than 4 years removed from the uniform do this with the deft hand required? This does not mean that general officers are incapable of such tasks. A retired general certainly brings a problem-solving mindset to a cabinet position. Retired generals have served the nation with distinction in various cabinet posts. General Marshall, previously mentioned, also served as Truman’s Secretary of State as did General Colin Powell for President George W. Bush. Besides General Mattis, President Trump nominated General Kelley to serves as his Secretary of Homeland Security. When asked, those retired from duty will likely step up and serve the nation they swore to defend. Again, should they?


In 1986, Congress reorganized the Department of Defense (the Goldwater-Nichols Act) to ensure there would be ONE military adviser to the President—the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The seven-year restriction on retired generals serving as SECDEF was to provide a ‘cooling off’ period between the nominee and those he/she might have served with while on duty. It would prevent a situation where service rivalry, or even personal rivalry, would overshadow the critical advice the President must receive.


Several people overlooked the Mattis appointment because President Trump was a political neophyte, and Mattis offered stability in the tumultuous administration. With the possible Biden appointment of Gen Austin, subsequent administrations run the risk of thinking that a military expert instead of a managerial and policy expert is needed at the helm of the world’s most formidable defense force. George Washington set the precedent for civilian control of the military. Brodie argued that the nuclear age made the need even more pronounced. Today’s political expediency to demonstrate military prowess and credibility cannot undue centuries of precedent,


Dr Mel Deaile is the author of ‘Always At War,’ a book on organizational culture in SAC under Gen LeMay. He received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.


The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.