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Can Biden Restore the Pentagon’s Balance of Power?

The Department of Defense might be the biggest challenge for his norm-repairing agenda.
March 10, 2021
Can Biden Restore the Pentagon’s Balance of Power?
President Joe Biden speaks at the Pentagon February 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden and Harris made their first trip to the Pentagon to deliver remarks and meet the nation's first Black Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. (Photo by Alex Brandon - Pool/Getty Images)

In its first months, the Biden administration has reestablished many of the norms of government that the Trump administration ignored or undermined—but not all. One of those norms, politicians’ control of the military, has been weakening for decades. Biden’s early actions in office suggest that the crucial written and unwritten rules of political-military relations aren’t getting the attention and care they deserve.

Amid a fog of blurred lines between the military and the elected government inherited from the Trump administration, Biden appointed a retired four-star general, Lloyd Austin, as secretary of defense. So far, the only legislation that President Biden has signed into law was a waiver to the National Security Act of 1947 allowing Austin to become secretary. Austin received just the third exception to the law forbidding any military officer from becoming secretary until seven years after leaving active duty—the others were for George Marshall in 1950 and James Mattis in 2017— both of whose tenures saw significant political-military tensions. Not a promising start.

The norm of political control of the military arises from its legal roots in the Constitution and statute, plus the unavoidable fact of the military’s size and power. Because of its strength and capabilities, the military is any administration’s strongest asset in foreign policy. Even in the absence of “kinetic” operations, the military still figures prominently in American relations with other countries—America’s relations with European and East Asian allies are held tightly because of collective security and collective defense pacts and U.S. military deployments to allied countries.

The military’s size and influence make political authority more, not less, important in the United States. The institutions of free government rely on elected politicians being the ones to determine the country’s foreign policy goals and distribute government resources accordingly. The military, in turn, relies on the politicians both for legitimate claim to national resources, and as a buffer against politicization, preventing those in uniform from being blamed for following the erroneous orders of those in suits.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, every administration has contributed to blurring the lines between the military and its political commanders, diminishing political authority. The situation worsened most drastically during the last eight years.

Political authority over the military is a facet of any liberal democracy, ensuring that the military serves the nation and not itself. Generals and admirals are experts in applying deadly and destructive force for political ends, but successful defense strategies need politicians, who have skills in building coalitions, allocating scarce resources, persuading the public, and balancing purely military considerations against economic, political, cultural, legal, and ideological ones. George Washington always obeyed the will of the Continental Congress because to do anything else while fighting a war for liberty would have been hypocritical. Franklin Roosevelt had the vision to override Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and send aid to the United Kingdom before the United States joined World War II. Abraham Lincoln had the imagination and perseverance to cycle through generals until he found one whose martial abilities could achieve Lincoln’s political goals.

These different abilities and specialties make the dynamic between political leadership and the military delicate. Politicians have every reason to keep the military well trained, well supplied, well prepared, and well led—nothing kills approval ratings more than an unsuccessful war. But at the same time, the military can’t allow their specific interests to override all others. Once the political leadership has made a decision, the military needs to salute and do its best.

Proper norms of political-military relations protect both the military and the politicians. When politicians give clear instructions to the military, which the military follows, and the outcome is still a failure, the armed forces can avoid undue blame because they were following clear directions. Just as importantly, the politicians can’t avoid blame, and voters can respond accordingly. This was the case after the Desert One debacle, which likely contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s losing re-election and prompted Congress to respond with the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

By avoiding partisan politics, the military can avoid being associated with or alienating either party. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley issued an official apology for being seen in his combat uniform during the Lafayette Square incident in June because he understands that his institution can’t afford to alienate half of America.

The most recent example of political-military relations breaking down is the Afghanistan war, which almost everybody believes is unwinnable. There are a thousand reasons why, but one common theme is that politicians set the military up for failure. Despite every administration’s “strategy” document, the decision-making about Afghanistan from Bush through the present has focused on how many troops to deploy without much direction for what they should do. Politicians have been (and are) asking the military to fix the country without telling them how or asking whether the military’s expertise aligns with their goals.

Like most government institutions, the armed forces also have a natural inclination to accumulate political power. In the post-Cold War era, almost every president and defense secretary has allowed the military to do so. (Secretaries Bill Perry and Robert Gates are notable exceptions.) The right power equilibrium is preserved only if both sides check the interference of the other—but recently, the politicians haven’t been protecting their prerogatives.

During the past three decades, the relationship between the political leadership of the executive branch and the military has been tilting in the wrong direction. Bill Clinton got off on wrong foot the foot with the military for his mishandling of allowing gays to serve in the military, which eventually resulted in the compromise “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. His first defense secretary, Les Aspin, got into conflicts with senior officers, especially the very popular Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell. Aspin resigned only a year later. George W. Bush’s first secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was excessively deferential to Generals John Abizaid and George Casey in fighting the Iraq War—so much so that President Bush finally decided that changing commanders wasn’t enough the strategy, and Rumsfeld too had to go, in favor of a more hands-on secretary. Obama’s last two secretaries of defense, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, increasingly relied on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to run the Pentagon, at the cost of disempowering their political appointees. The Pentagon’s reaction to the unprecedented number of women who joined the Department of Defense leadership as political appointees only exacerbated the problem—many were mistreated, ignored, and demeaned as too youthful and too female by senior officers. Some were even sexually harassed.

Trump’s first secretary of defense, Mattis, was a retired Marine Corps general, and still acted more like a general than a political member of the president’s cabinet. He relied on his old contacts in the Pentagon—mostly Marine officers, including the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford—to formulate strategy. The secretary’s most important task is budget negotiation between Congress and the military, striking a compromise between fiscal realities (or whatever pseudo-realities Congress endorses) and military necessities to produce cost-efficient strategies at the service of the president’s policies. Mattis, however, prioritized his National Defense Strategy over military appropriations, even though the latter is the centerpiece of strategy. Neither he nor his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, had any prior experience in politics, and throughout Mattis’s tenure, most political offices in the department remained vacant. Yet even the confirmed political leadership didn’t have the ear of the secretary. Mattis’s successor, Esper, only marginally improved the situation.

After almost a decade of laxity and sloppiness, by the end of the Trump administration, the balance of power in the senior Pentagon leadership had shifted decisively against the political appointees.

Biden came into office with a host of challenges. First of all, he’s a Democrat. The military has, historically and institutionally, been closer to the Republican party. In identifying what he calls a “Democrat-military gap,” Jim Golby writes, “there are a large number of conservative Republicans in the senior officer corps,” and officers ideologically closer to the Democratic party “choose to enter the officer corps at low rates and choose to leave at such high rates.” The only Republican who has ever appointed a non-Republican secretary of defense is Trump (Mattis is an independent), while every Democratic president has had at least one Republican and/or independent as secretary of defense. On the one hand, Democratic presidents try to avoid charges of weakness in foreign affairs by appointing Republicans. On the other hand, they attempt to reassure the military that they will be mindful of its institutional interest—as well as hiding behind a Republican secretary for implementing progressive initiatives in the military, which is traditionally a conservative institution. Overall, since the end of the Truman administration, there have been four Democratic secretaries of defense and seventeen Republicans.

Biden himself adds to this problem. As vice president, he had a fraught relationship with the military. Especially during the Afghanistan strategy debates, he was at odds with senior uniformed officers, and people close to him, possibly at his request, leaked stories that would reflect poorly on the military leadership, according to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir. Gates also recounted that Biden frequently told Obama that “the military can’t be trusted.” These frictions led to an embarrassing Rolling Stone story—embarrassing both for General Stanley McChrystal and Vice President Biden—that got McChrystal fired.

Biden could have ameliorated these problems by picking a secretary who could act as an honest broker between the administration and the uniformed military. Austin will have major challenges acting in that role. He’s is a former four-star general and an old friend of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, who is also an Army general. Service allegiances count for a lot within the department, and regardless of what decisions Austin makes, the assumption of partiality will color his every action. Mattis was able to avoid unnecessarily inflaming interservice rivalries because he had been a Marine general, and the Marine Corps is a small force with a relatively small budget. The Army, on the other hand, is the biggest piece of the Defense budget, which in turn is the largest piece of the discretionary budget, engendering jealousy from the Navy and Air Force. The only way to appear above the interservice fray is to delegate to and rely on political appointees without service allegiances. Yet Austin will likely rely on his old connections—that is, senior officers, mostly from the Army. By doing so, he could repeat Mattis’s mistake of marginalizing the political appointees in the office of the secretary of defense.

Austin has another problem, too. He has a reputation for avoiding the press whenever possible. Press-shyness in an officer could be a virtue, but Austin is now a political appointee, which means press relations are important. One of the secretary of defense’s main responsibilities is explaining the president’s policies and strategies to the American people, and news media are key to that effort. The Defense Department under Trump was notoriously stingy with public information: For over a year under Mattis and Shanahan, there was no on-camera press conference. Too little transparency in national security can be just as dangerous as too much—good policies and strategies that lack public support can’t be sustained. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, promised more transparency, and Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby has been holding on-camera briefings twice a week, and Secretary Austin has substituted for him several times.

The next challenge is that Biden’s Pentagon will almost certainly be filled with more women and LGBT personnel than Obama’s. Kath Hicks, Kelly Magsamen, and Alice Friend—all three extraordinarily capable women—have been appointed to senior Defense Department positions. This change reflects the changes in the society, but it will likely face similar resistance from the military. The president has threatened to fire any member of his administration who is disrespectful to a colleague on spot. That’s nice in theory, but disciplining, let alone firing, a military officer for being unprofessional towards a young colleague, especially over polarizing issues of sexual identity and gender, is a tough political call. Biden’s appointees deserve to be treated with respect, and they especially deserve the support of the secretary of defense and of the president who appointed them. There is little doubt that Hicks, Magsamen, and Friend will perform their duties well by advocating for less senior appointees, but it falls on the secretary to act and the president to support him.

Consecutive administrations have had a tendency to hide behind the military to make the case for their policies and strategies. Most memorably, George W. Bush sent Gen. David Petraeus, rather than the secretary of defense, to explain to Congress how and why the Iraq Surge was working. Because Americans trust the military much more than politicians, it’s a politically smart tactic, but bad government. Americans didn’t elect the military to set policy and formulate strategy. Biden has already hidden behind the military by appointing Austin, and this should stop here. The Biden administration has come into office by promising more transparency and accountability. This is an opportunity to set a precedent of allowing Americans to hold their elected government accountable.

The current state of political-military relations and Biden’s historically testy relationship with the uniformed leadership are long-term risks both for his administration and the country. But in the short term, Biden has the advantages of broad popularity and not being Donald Trump to reestablish norms. He also campaigned to be a president who will work on areas of bipartisan agreement. Restoring proper political-military relations is a rare opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise, do something good for the country, and help himself politically. The U.S. military remains the guarantor of world peace, and only a good relationship between the armed forces and their political leadership—starting with the commander-in-chief—can sustain that peace.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.