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Biden has picked a retired general for defense secretary. Here’s why it matters.

The move marks back-to-back administrations tapping retired generals to fill high-level government positions

On Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden announced his nominee for defense secretary would be retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. The move would make the former U.S. Central Command leader the first Black secretary of defense. Biden would also be the second consecutive president to begin his tenure with the nomination of a retired military officer for the post.

Biden’s announcement has revived concerns among national security analysts and civil-military relations scholars about retired generals running the Department of Defense. Here are some of the issues raised by Austin’s appointment.

Civilians — not the military — run the Pentagon

Appointing a recently retired general like Austin as secretary of defense could undermine the principle of civilian control of the military — as the Trump administration itself showed.

When President Trump nominated retired Marine general Jim Mattis to the defense secretary post in 2017, he required a congressional waiver to do so. By law, former military officers must be retired for at least seven years before they can be appointed secretary of defense, and Mattis had been in retirement only four years. The provision was designed to strengthen civilian control of the military by providing some distance for officers from their careers and contacts in the military, before they take on the top job at the Pentagon.

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The Trump administration’s approach to personnel and policy also shifted civilian control of the military in other ways. The White House delegated substantial authority to the military to run its own affairs, and an important civilian policy hub in the Pentagon, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, found itself with less of a “seat at the table.” The military also chafed under some of the president’s initiatives, reportedly engaging in “respectful disobedience,” or slow-rolling, to counter them.

What makes the decision to appoint another retired general who also requires a congressional waiver somewhat surprising is that the 2020 Democratic Party platform explicitly aimed to “advance competent civilian control” of the military.

The top Pentagon job is very different from military leadership

Biden stated he chose Austin because of their close working relationship and common views about global affairs. He also cited Austin’s success in working with allies and bringing troops home at the formal end of the Iraq War in 2011.

Generals are also accustomed to showing deference to civilian authority and Austin was reportedly a strict adherent of that ethic when he served as the top military commander in Iraq during the Obama administration. To a Biden team looking for a new direction, Austin’s reputed no-drama approach to civil-military relations might seem just the contrast to the Trump era, especially given recent trends in civil-military relations.

What the Mattis resignation tells us about how Trump is damaging the military’s credibility

But if that was part of Biden’s calculus, this view risks misunderstanding the components of effective civilian control. Effective secretaries of defense are also skilled politicians, capable of translating the president’s political priorities in the Pentagon. The U.S. military is a famously hierarchical institution where staying in one’s lane and remaining apolitical are strongly valued, even if senior officers don’t always do so in practice. As political scientist Eliot Cohen writes, civilian appointments to policy positions in the Pentagon ensure “civilian perspectives dominate,” an important feature of healthy civil-military relations.

There’s a reason most secretaries of defense come from high-level civilian careers in politics, government or the private sector. They are used to working with stakeholders and managing coalitions to get things done. Unlike a career military officer, they think about domestic and intragovernmental politics on a daily basis — which helps them address the White House’s priorities.

The pick may complicate existing concerns over military politicization

Concerns over military politicization have intensified in recent years as the armed forces found itself in increasingly partisan waters, called on to manage controversial pardons of convicted war criminals or deploy active-duty troops to the border wall, for instance. Following this pattern, the decision to install yet another retired general to head the Defense Department has drawn criticism from many civil-military analysts.

As Jim Golby writes, reliance on retired generals for high-ranking political appointments may contribute to “blurring of lines between active-duty and retired military officers” — and risks installing individuals who may be less able to shift their leadership style from commander to politician. The challenge of keeping these communities separate in the public eye became more difficult after the outcry from retired military members in the wake of the George Floyd protests and prominent retired military endorsements in the run-up to the November election.

Three things to know about military endorsements for the 2020 campaign

Another retired general as Pentagon chief could also complicate the clear delineation between military and partisan roles. As Dave Barno wrote after John Kelly’s 2017 appointment as White House chief of staff, installing retired officers in inherently partisan political roles may compound this challenge of politicization. Research has shown the perception of retired military officers as partisan can have negative effects on how the public perceives them and the military.

The choice of Austin for defense secretary, while a historic move, risks normalizing the pattern of appointing retired military officers to such positions. In this area, then, Biden may be less of a departure from Trump than many civil-military observers expected.

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Risa A. Brooks (@RisaBrooks12) is the Allis Chalmers associate professor of political science at Marquette University, nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and adjunct scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Michael A. Robinson (@m_robinson771) is an assistant professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an active-duty Army strategist. He holds a PhD in political science from Stanford University, where his research focused on civil-military relations and partisan polarization.

Heidi A. Urben (@HeidiAUrben) is an adjunct associate professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, adjunct scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute, and a retired Army colonel.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of Defense or any part of the U.S. government.