Jonathan Cohn

Jan 22, 2021

4 min read

Congress Abandons Civilian Control of the Military…Again

In order to preserve civilian control of the military, current law prevents the appointment any military officer who has been out of active duty for less than seven years. Although the principle of civilian control of the military goes back to the Constitution, this specific requirement traces to the National Security Act of 1947.

In 2017, Trump had to get a waiver from Congress to nominate General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, a rare move that set a bad precedent — a bad precedent that President Biden has already decided to follow in nominating General Lloyd Austin.

Back in 2017, when Trump nominated General Mattis, retired lieutenant colonel William Astore explained why the principle civilian control was so important in the The Nation:

First, the president already has a team of uniformed generals to advise him: the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By selecting career military men like Mattis and Flynn as his senior civilian advisers on military matters, Trump is in essence creating a rival Joint Chiefs, his own tight circle of generals trained and acculturated to think about the world as primarily a realm of conflict and to favor military solutions to geopolitical problems. Second, though it’s getting ever harder to remember in increasingly militarized America, this nation was founded on the fundamental principle of civilian control over the military, a principle that will be seriously eroded if the president’s senior civilian advisers on defense-related matters are men who self-identify as warriors and warfighters.

The bottom line is this: A republic — or should I say, former republic? — founded on civilian control of the military needs true civilians as a counterweight to militarism as well as military adventurism. Recently retired generals are anything but that; they’re not even speed bumps on the road to the next set of misbegotten military “adventures.” They are likely to be only one thing: enablers of and accelerants to military action. Their presence in the highest civilian positions represents nothing short of a de facto military coup in Washington, a coup that required no violence since the president-elect simply anointed and exalted them as America’s security saviors.

Last month, the New York Times editorial board expressed concern about President Biden choosing another general (Gen. Lloyd Austin) as Secretary of Defense:

What’s unique about the moment isn’t the admittedly formidable military challenges the country faces — which have existed for more than a decade — but rather its domestic challenges. For four years President Trump blurred the lines by placing retired generals in a host of civilian roles and threatening to use troops in American cities. Healthy democracies require a division of labor between military leaders, who are trained to follow orders and win battles, and civilian ones, who are tasked with asking hard questions about why those battles are being fought in the first place.

That’s why mature democracies around the world have civilians serving in that role. A global study of defense ministries from the 1960s to the 2000s found that in democratic countries, active-duty or retired military officers served at the helm in only about 10 percent of the cases, according to Peter White, the author of the study, who is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Auburn University. The path America is on puts the nation in the company of new or transitioning democracies and autocratic countries.

The job of a defense secretary includes presenting the president with a full range of options, including cutting military spending, canceling weapons systems and closing bases. The narrower task of representing the views of the armed forces falls on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The secretary of defense must manage budgets, allocate resources, oversee a sprawling bureaucracy and interface with Congress — inherently political tasks. The ideal secretary of defense has served in the military but not spent an entire career there.

(emphasis added)

Nonetheless, the waiver for Austin cleared easily.

The House voted 326 to 78. The dissenters in the House consisted of 15 Democrats and 63 Republicans.

The 15 Democrats consisted of Squad members Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, as well as Sean Casten, Jared Golden, Jahana Hayes, Pramila Jayapal, Ron Kind, Tom Malinowski, Gwen Moore, Seth Moulton, and Katie Porter.

Only a few of these Representatives were in Congress back in 2017 for the vote on the waiver for Mattis, which all but 36 Democrats opposed. Moulton, interestingly, was among the 36, whereas Jayapal, Kind, and Moore were consistent. Only 1 Republican — now-retired Justin Amash — voted against a waiver in 2017.

The Senate voted 69 to 27 in support of the waiver for Austin.

The 27 dissenting votes consisted of 14 Democrats and 13 Republicans.

The 14 Democrats were Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Back in 2017, the vote on a waiver for Mattis was 81 to 17. Not a single Republican voted no.

Most of the dissenting votes were the same. The exceptions? Cortez Masto voted for a waiver in 2017 but not now. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Pat Leahy (D-VT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did the reverse. Jacky Rosen, a dissenting vote, was only elected in 2018.