No More Generals Atop the Pentagon

On Jan. 13, 2017, I voted to allow retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to serve as secretary of defense. Like every Marine of my ...


On Jan. 13, 2017, I voted to allow retired Marine Gen.

Jim Mattis

to serve as secretary of defense. Like every Marine of my generation, I looked up to Gen. Mattis as the embodiment of the Marine Corps ethos. I still do. But I have come to believe that my vote was a mistake. Congress was wrong to exempt him from a legal prohibition on recently retired military officers serving as defense secretary. And Congress shouldn’t do the same for President-elect

Joe Biden’s

nominee, retired Army Gen.

Lloyd Austin.

Before Secretary Mattis, Congress had allowed only one exemption since passing the 1947 National Security Act, for Army Gen. George Marshall in 1950. Voting to allow a second exception didn’t seem like much of a threat to civil-military relations. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how Gen. Mattis’s tenure departed from norms in important ways. Despite my enormous respect for him and the exceptional National Defense Strategy he wrote at the Pentagon, his time as secretary reinforced why recently retired officers shouldn’t serve in this role.

Like many military officers, Secretary Mattis never seemed interested in the cabinet politics that come with the position. He avoided fights with fiscal hawks in the White House over defense spending, even as defense hawks in Congress begged him to make the case for additional dollars.

Secretary Mattis seemed to run the Pentagon like it was a combatant command. After hundreds of billions in defense cuts under the Obama administration, he rightly made a priority of improving readiness. But that came at the expense of long-term overhaul, despite bipartisan support for efforts like growing the Navy to 355 ships.

Additionally, Gen. Mattis brought a warfighting-first perspective to public relations. With no background in politics, he undervalued the importance of engaging the public on national-security issues and scaled back the department’s public release of information. This had the perverse effect of reducing the department’s ability to persuade Congress and the public in important bureaucratic fights.

In voting to grant an exception for Gen. Mattis in 2017,

Sen. Jack Reed,

ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, cautioned that “waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation.” Sen. Reed is right. Making such exceptions a common practice would subvert the intent of the National Security Act.

Mr. Biden is sensitive to these concerns: “I respect and believe in the importance of civilian control of our military and in the importance of a strong civil-military working relationship at DoD—as does Austin,” Mr. Biden wrote in the Atlantic. That misses the point. No serious observer is worried about Gen. Austin seizing power and threatening civilian control of the military. But defense scholars on the left and right have laid out broader concerns that are worth considering.

One is that the qualities that make a successful military officer don’t necessarily translate into Pentagon leadership, and Gen. Austin has little experience out of uniform. Soldiers are trained to carry out orders, and officers rarely become generals by shaking things up.

There are also questions about Gen. Austin’s time running Central Command. Congressional inquiries suggest that intelligence briefings during his tenure understated the dangers of ISIS. Then there’s the reporting suggesting that Mr. Biden tapped Gen. Austin because he won’t rock the bureaucratic boat. The next defense secretary will have to deal with coronavirus spending putting downward pressure on defense budgets. That will demand hard choices that won’t play well in all corners of Congress or the White House. The secretary will have to be an energetic advocate.

Surveys consistently report that the military is one of the most trusted institutions in America, but politicization undermines that trust. Look at the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions, where recently retired general officers attacked the other party’s nominee as a national-security threat. If installing general officers as defense secretary becomes the norm, senior military leaders may try to ingratiate themselves with one political party or another in the hopes of securing a powerful appointment.

America’s foremost military and national-security threat is China. Both parties agree on this basic point. Gen. Austin has considerable experience, but in the Middle East. He would be the third straight former Army officer to oversee the Pentagon, following

Christopher Miller

and

Mark Esper.

He would work alongside

Gen. Mark Milley,

chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also an Army officer. Gen. Austin’s elevation would mean land-power advocates would continue to dominate the Pentagon even as the threat from China demands a compelling vision of American sea power. Further, Mr. Biden and his closest foreign-policy advisers will have to deepen alliances and strengthen partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to counter China. They will need a defense secretary who knows the region.

I admire Gen. Austin for his lifetime of honorable service. But that service doesn’t make him the best fit for defense secretary during a moment of profound geopolitical change and challenges. When Congress decides whether to make an exception to the law for Gen. Austin, I will vote no.

Mr. Gallagher, a Republican, represents Wisconsin’s Eighth Congressional District.

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