Biden Administration

Trump Undermined Civilian Control of the Military. With His Pentagon Pick, Biden Has Too.

Civilian control over the military still matters.

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When President Donald Trump nominated retired Marine General James Mattis as his first secretary of defense, Mattis became the first recently retired general to run the Pentagon in more than six decades.

This decision was not just one of a long list of presidential norms that Trump violated during his time in office, it also required making an exception under federal law. Shortly after World War II, Congress passed a law requiring that civilians run the military: under the terms of the National Defense Act of 1947, any former military brass must have been retired for at least seven years to qualify. Trump asked Congress to waive that law for Mattis, and Congress dutifully did as it was told.

Some Democrats rightly criticized the maneuver at the time. "Americans have always been skeptical of concentrated government power, and concentrated military power is at the top of the list," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) said in a statement. "We established this rule because the principle of civilian control protects our democracy."

In a related story, President-elect Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he will nominate retired General Lloyd Austin to be his secretary of defense. Austin retired from the Army in 2016, which means that, like Mattis, he can only be appointed if Congress consents once again to this bit of presidential norm-bashing.

In an op-ed for The Atlantic, Biden outlined the case for Austin. The four-star general who oversaw the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is a man who "got the job done," Biden writes—apparently unironically. "The fact is, Austin's many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face. He is the person we need in this moment."

It may very well be true that in a nation of more than 330 million people, Austin is the one and only individual willing and qualified to wrangle the world's most expensive bureaucracy. It is more likely that Biden simply prefers Austin to the handful of other individuals his staff vetted for the job. A president should be free to pick his own cabinet, of course.

Still, if Biden's presidency is going to live up to its "return to normalcy" billing, he could start by, well, restoring important norms like civilian control over the military.

This is not a small thing, and shouldn't be treated as such. Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.), who voted against waiving the 1947 law for Mattis, wrote on Twitter that Congress is essentially being asked to "pass a special law for one person."

"This is manifestly improper," Amash wrote.

Indeed, civilian control over the military is a longstanding, fundamental element to not just American government, but democratic societies around the world. It is an arrangement meant to balance the domestic risk posed by large, powerful standing armies with the need to protect democracy from the powerful standing armies of other countries. While Congress didn't statutorily enshrine the 10-year rule until after World War II, the Congressional Research Service noted in 2017 that the idea of civilian control of the military dates back to the founding of the United States.

Unfortunately, norms that are cast aside by one president and not immediately and explicitly restored by their successor tend to just become new norms. That's a pretty good summary of the entire history of the expansion of executive power over the past century or so, but it may matter now more than during most presidential transitions because of the sheer number of tattered norms that the outgoing president leaves in his wake.

Some Democrats are already signaling their opposition to Biden's nomination of Austin. The principle of civilian control over the military "is essential to our democracy," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.) told The Hill on Tuesday. "That's the reason for the statute which I think has to be applied, unfortunately, in this instance." Sen. Jon Tester (D–Mont.) also indicated he would vote against waiving the law for Austin. Both had voted against waiving the retirement requirement for Mattis.

"This is becoming a trend, and I don't like it," Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii), who voted to grant that waiver for Mattis in 2017, told Politico. He acknowledged that it would be "hard to justify doing it for one distinguished retired general officer and not another."

That's the thing about norms—and laws too. Once broken, it's easy to justify breaking them again, particularly if you're doing it for your team this time, and even if you don't like it or know it might be a mistake. Before long, it's like it never mattered at all.

NEXT: California Voters Declined To End Cash Bail. L.A.'s New District Attorney Says He'll Do It Anyway.

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  1. Mad Dog Mattis was just your average swamp creature under the phony braveria. Almost as terrible a choice as Moustache Neocon for National Security Advisor.

    I don’t know if he was trying to keep the GOPe happy, or woo the Kristol Krowd, but he accepted some pretty shitty recommendations.

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  2. Man it’s almost like Biteme took ya to the prom and left with your best friend. And then she did all the stuff he wanted.

  3. Ah, so this is the vaunted Reason criticism of leftist politicians that I’ve heard so much about. Biden bad but Orange Man badder.

    1. Yeah just look how the country turned into a military dictatorship under Mad Dog Mattis, who undermined Trump and lied to keep the perpetual warfare state cruising along.

      1. How is perpetual war not a thing Reason libertarians love? They keep harping on that “return to normalcy” and that is a big part of that normal. Good job Reason.

  4. Anyone who opposes Biden’s pick is forgetting one key fact: Russia attacked us in 2016. And now we need a strong, well-funded, professionally-run military to confront Putin. If setting aside old-fashioned concepts like “civilian control of the military” is the best way to get back at Russia, then I’m all for it.

    #LibertariansForGettingToughWithRussia

  5. This the new narrative when criticizing creepy uncle joe?

    1. It’s ok as long as Trump is criticized simultaneously, and more.

      1. There’s a sort of Newtonian principle at work: The more a column is critical of Biden, the nastier the To-Be-Sure-I-Hate-Trump graf has to be.

  6. “Trump Undermined Civilian Control of the Military. With His Pentagon Pick, Biden Has Too.”

    Quelle surprise! Plus ça change.

    1. …plus c’est la même chose.

      Une autre chose qui ne change jamais est la passion de Boehm pour Orangemanbad.

  7. But there’s one important thing you’re overlooking in the difference between Trump’s pick and Biden’s – Biden is picking a black man.

  8. Trump Undermined Civilian Control of the Military. With His Pentagon Pick, Biden Has Too.

    How?

    When President Donald Trump nominated retired Marine General James Mattis as his first secretary of defense, Mattis became the first recently retired general to run the Pentagon in more than six decades.

    Oh, so he hasn’t. *Retired* General = civilian.

    In any case, How did Mattis turn out? Exactly the same as every civilian appointee to the post – pro-war, pro-MIC. And Biden’s pick will be exactly the same.

    This decision was not just one of a long list of presidential norms that Trump violated during his time in office,

    As you note down here. ‘violating norms’ does not mean ‘undermining civilian control’. Is violating norms bad because they’re ‘part of the plan’? And everything’s fine as long as its going according to the plan. Even if the plan is horrifying.

    Also, since Biden’s appointed a recently retired General also – how many times does this have to happen before it *becomes the norm* rather than *violating norms*?

    This is not a small thing, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.), who voted against waiving the 1947 law for Mattis, wrote on Twitter that Congress is essentially being asked to “pass a special law for one person.”

    I mean, that is a return to normalcy. One rule for the peasants, one rule for the nobility. If anything, wrangling a special favor for Congress was Trump *NOT* violating norms.

    1. But, ultimately, what is important is we got that mean-tweeting, ketchup-on-steak eating, motherfucker out of the White House.

      I bet Biden’s never even seen a bottle of A-1. That’s a *real* President.

      1. He was rude to the Germans!

  9. … and reporting of Biden family corruption screeches to a halt.

  10. It is payback time for the so called Lincoln Project neocons who supported Biden.

  11. Now if you want to read an actual good article on this subject try this. https://greenwald.substack.com/p/bidens-choice-for-pentagon-chief

    1. Is Greenwald the last real journalist?

      1. One of the last few honest ones at least. How the fuck on a “libertarian” site does Bohem not mention that Austin is on the board of Raytheon.

        1. That’s a new low for the Military Industrial Complex. Disgusting.

  12. PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE Biden has reportedly selected Lloyd Austin, the former Army four-star general who in his last post oversaw all operations in the Middle East, to become his secretary of defense, rounding out the final major position of the incoming national security team.

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  13. Good thing biden will never be president.

    1. Either way it’ll be Harris or Trump.

      1. Old Uncle Joe was the teaser stallion for the establishment liberal mare. Harris will be the one who actually fucks them.

  14. Seems like a solution in search of a problem. A quick search of former Secretaries of War and Defense shows only Marshall and Mattis were serving officers, with never a general before or between them. Marshall was a 5-star and “appointed for life” to that rank, otherwise he would have hit mandatory retirement years prior. A specious example. Btw, Kennedy reappointed Eisenhower to his active duty rank after his stint as president.

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  16. I was in the Air Force for 24 years. Know what they call me these days? Retired. Civilian. Old Fogey.

    When he was appointed, Mattis was a civilian just like me. The only thing Trump did wrong in picking Mattis was in picking Mattis.

  17. What a moronic article. Both Mattis and Austin are civilians. Prove or provide some evidence that merely because they were ex-generals will somehow endanger civilian control of the military.

    Thank you for making it clear that, while TDS may be on the way out, you’re still embracing derangement wherever you can find it.

    1. They’ve discovered how comfortable it is to be on the bandwagon.

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