By Brandon Concannon Colter
Legislative Intern, Association of the United States Navy
The Senate Armed Services Committee met Jan. 12 to examine the status and implications that the nomination of Army Gen. Lloyd Austin (Ret.) to the position of Secretary of Defense. Austin, a retired four-star Army general, served as the 12th commander of U.S. Central Command and as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army. He was nominated Dec. 8, 2020, by President-elect Biden to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) opened explaining the issue of civilian control and the law that requires retired military officers to have been out of the military for a minimum of seven years prior to being nominated to be the Secretary of Defense without a waiver. The Chairman acknowledged that there have only been two waivers since its adoption in the National Security Act of 1947. The Chairman stated his skepticism of this rule but, announced he was here to learn from the witnesses. The ranking member, the Honorable Jack Reed (D-RI), was more concerned with the implications and precedent that granting two waivers in a row would have. The main concern was that the nominee could surround himself with other flag officers and would further politicize the armed forces.
The witness panel was Dr. Lindsay Cohn of the Naval War College and Dr. Kathleen McInnis from the Congressional Research Service. Both witnesses have long histories with national security issues and the element of civilian control. Dr. Cohn has written extensively on civ/mil relations and the need for a strong civilian control of the military for a successful Democratic Republic.
Dr. Cohn presented two pros and two cons for granting General Austin a waiver for the nomination. The pros included: The President should have the ability to choose who he wants to advise him and that qualified nominees that break historic barriers are needed and Gen. Austin meets this. The cons included: This would further weaken civ/mil relations while continuing to weaken civilian control of the military and that civilian control is a stable and requirement for a successful Democratic Republic. Dr. Cohn stated that “the principal of civilian control is to ensure that the military serves the purposes of the republic rather than serving its own organizational judgement or purposes.” Dr. Cohn proceeds to explain that there is a narrative within the DOD and outside of it that military officers are better at controlling and managing the DOD. Dr. Cohn explains that this is troubling and rebuilding civilian expertise that has been eroded.
Dr. McInnis presented that the military is subordinate and accountable to civilian control. She explains that seven-year rule or cooling off period has only been waived twice. Once in 1950 for General Marshall and in 2017 for General Mattis. Dr. McInnis goes on to describe how the experience in the uniform does not prepare anyone for the political fights that the Secretary of Defense must be prepared for. This includes fighting for budgets, planning with other organizations, appropriating funds without bias and finally, protect the Department from politicization. Dr. McInnis acknowledges arguments by defense experts that the civilian oversight is at a low point. This is due to not nominating and confirming many civilian positions which encourages departments within the DOD to circumvent and marginalize civilian counterparts.
Each committee member had similar concerns about the nomination, except for a few who had no concerns, about waiving the cooling off period. The main concern was how General Austin can effectively combat the muting of civilian voices that has been recorded by the National Security Strategy Commission. Dr. McInnis stated, “National Security is a team sport.” With the agreement of Dr. Cohn, the consensus is the General needs to prove that he is willing and able to usr a broad spectrum of avenues to successfully accomplish goals and strategies. They believe this can be accomplished by a robust civilian support system in the department.