Mr Joe Biden has reinstated the courage for American democracy, and in the last election, he was the only hope to protect its values. Because American democratic values had been undermined under President Donald Trump, he has damaged the principle of civilian-military relations. In a mature democracy, the military is led by a civilian leader, and any military person should be separated from bigoted politics.
Lately, President-elect Joe Biden has nominated retired General Lloyd Austin for secretary of defence. And this nomination has already formed debate among the American people.
For this nomination, Joe Biden has already requested a Congressional waiver. Because, according to the National Security Act of 1947, a forthcoming secretary has to wait for seven years after finishing active duty as an officer while General Austin had retired only four years ago in 2016. That federal law was established to guarantee the control of the military by civilian leaders. The law also believed that only exceptional situations might indicate that a retired military officer should lead as the defence secretary.
This will be the third time in the entire US history that a president has requested a Congressional waiver for defence secretary. President H. Truman had done it for George Marshall in 1950, President D. Trump for James Mattis in 2017, and now the President-elect Joe Biden for General Lloyd Austin.
President-elect Joe Biden has written about his decision in “The Atlantic”, but he has not explained well to justify why General Austin should be given a waiver. He has mentioned his good relations with General Austin. Joe Biden was the Vice President when he visited Iraq, and General Austin was the chief commander in Iraq then. In his article in “The Atlantic”, Biden has praised General Austin for his brilliant work in Iraq and the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Biden defined General Austin as he is loved by the armed forces members and respected by American allies.
General Lloyd Austin is indeed a man of honour. Though he has proudly served in the military for 41 years, he has always maintained a low media profile. General Austin would be the first African American to be the defence secretary of America. In the US, only 16 per cent of the 1.3 million active armed forces are Black, and most of the highest ranks in armed forces are filled with white officers. So, it will be a historic moment for the black people in America. As the Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement, “Black Americans have sacrificed their lives for this country in every war since the Revolutionary War. Appointing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to a position of command and authority over the United States military, second only to the president of the United States, is historic and well deserved.”
General Austin played a crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the war in the Middle-East. For this reason, Joe Biden suggests that this type of huge logistical experience will also help General Austin as the secretary of defence in massive logistics operation “to help distribute Covid-19 vaccines widely and equitably”.
But it is not amenable that the military or the Defense Department has any big role in distributing vaccines. Nonetheless, all the good gestures about a retired army General’s nomination do not justify a congressional waiver and military leadership of the defence secretary.
The task of a defence secretary is huge. The task includes cutting military expenditure, managing the military budgets, cancelling any weapon program, and withdrawing troops from overseas camps. The secretary of defence has to deal with congress all the time to discuss these affairs. The person also has to deal with the media and general people about the security of the nation. All of these works are political and are well served by a civilian person.
When a recently retired military person takes on the whole institution’s leadership, there remains a risk that the person can misuse his power or position. Because his/her colleagues may remain active in service, there can be a civil-military clash in the Defense Department.
History suggests, all these feared scenarios are possible and had happened so far. In 1950, President Harry Truman requested a congressional waiver for George Marshall as the secretary of defence, which later proved a wrong decision. While Marshall took office as the secretary of defence, there was growing civil-military tension between Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall’s former colleague. And Marshall is still well known for his service as the secretary of state not as the secretary of defence. Last time, when Gen. James Mattis was nominated as the secretary of defence in the Trump administration, he was also seen as an emergency at that moment. But later, it became vibrant that Mattis was also close to his army colleagues. It is believed that in his time as the secretary of defence, civilian political leaders were sidelined in the Pentagon.
Furthermore, Many American top Generals have partnerships or work as contractors in the defence industry. General Austin also has relations with the defence industry. He serves on the board of “Raytheon” which is one of the world’s largest weapon manufacturers. Raytheon’s weapons are used in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where many civilians have lost their lives so far. And most of the Democrat leaders have promised to end that catastrophic war as soon as possible. General Austin has to withdraw himself from all sorts of connections with the defence industry to clear his stands. Because if the secretary of defence can not be a neutral person, he will be unable to decide budgets cut in the defence expenditure. It may jeopardy the interest of defence contractors.
Besides all, the principle of civilian leadership over the military is a fundamental part of American democratic values, and it should be respected. Strong democracies need to follow this principle because military leaders spent most of the time of their life outside partisan politics. But civilian political leaders gain enormous experience in national politics, and they can overview any decision from citizens’ wellbeing.
President-elect Joe Biden himself admits that the civilian control over the military is inevitable. General Austin may be a good man, but now, a civilian leader is vital as the defence secretary. Mr Biden should rethink his request for the congressional waiver as it is becoming a trend.
A civilian leader should lead the Pentagon to increase transparency about military operations and rationalize noncombatant oversight of war plans while securing national security.