Without a strong secretary to run interference, Mr. Trump’s petulance and wrath often replaced process and respect at the Pentagon. At times, the president lashed out — as he did in ordering troop levels reduced to 2,500 in both Afghanistan and Iraq before Jan. 15. Mr. Trump’s postelection purge of civilian leaders has left the Defense Department hollowed out.
The Pentagon now needs to re-establish traditional national security processes and return to a sense of normalcy. President-elect Biden no doubt will want to streamline civilian oversight of war plans, increase transparency surrounding military operations and chart a new and perhaps very different vision for the defense budget.
But appointing another retired general to lead the Pentagon will not help return things to normal. Even if a retired general like Mr. Mattis was the right person for the Trump era, that era is over. A legislative exception granted at an exceptional moment should not become the new rule.
After four years of relative, if erratic, autonomy under Mr. Trump, military leaders may chafe when civilian national security leaders ask to check their homework. To some extent, that is healthy. Too much friction can also stop or slow progress, true, but a certain level is necessary for proper governance.
The need for experienced leadership in the Pentagon to manage this friction is vital. As even George Marshall realized, Mr. Biden would be wise to select a strong civilian who is up to the task.
At Marshall’s confirmation hearing, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson asked him about civilian control. Marshall reflected that as a second lieutenant, “I thought we would never get anywhere in the Army unless a soldier was secretary of war.” But he added, “As I grew a little older and served through some of our military history, particularly the Philippine insurrection, I came to the fixed conclusion that he should never be a soldier.”
Marshall understood that military training and experience can be inadequate preparation for the political challenges facing a defense secretary. Marshall, like General Mattis, served because the president asked him to do so. But the MacArthur episode demonstrated that a retired general was not, in fact, the right person to help Truman keep under other generals under control.
President-elect Biden should not put Lloyd Austin, nor any other recently retired general or admiral, in the same position. General Austin is a fine public servant, and he may well continue his service to the nation out of uniform. But the Pentagon would be the wrong place for him to do it.
Jim Golby, a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, has been a special adviser to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Mike Pence and to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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