It puts General Austin in a tough spot, too. There is much to admire about the retired general, who distinguished himself over a 41-year career in the Army. He’s regarded as an exceptional soldier and a compassionate leader. He oversaw the withdrawal of 150,000 soldiers from Iraq, a monumental logistical feat.
General Austin developed a reputation as a fierce advocate for the physical and mental health of a force that has been cycling continuously through conflict zones for the past 20 years. He also has a vision for how the military must adapt to meet future challenges, which he sketched out during a rare public speech in 2018 to students at Fort Leavenworth’s Lewis and Clark Center. In general, Mr. Biden deserves the chance to pick his team.
But the nomination of General Austin raises a key question: Do Americans want civilian control of the military? If the answer is yes — as it absolutely must be — then nominating another recently retired general to serve in this role continues a worrisome trend.
General Mattis served the nation at a tumultuous time. But what was once a rare exception is fast becoming a rule. The current acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, retired from the Army in 2014 and worked for two years as a defense contractor. If this continues, military brass will soon be jockeying for the top job even before they retire. General Austin’s nomination so soon after the nomination of General Mattis shows that granting a waiver to General Mattis was a mistake.
The justifications that are being used to explain the need for another waiver are telling for how easily they could be applied to future cases. Jen Psaki, incoming White House press secretary for the Biden administration, released a statement on Tuesday that said Mr. Biden believes General Austin is the right leader for “this unique moment — a moment that will require deep experience with every level of the U.S. military.”
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.