At SASC Hearing, Senator Warren Highlights the Importance of Civilian Control of the Military as Senate Prepares to Vote on General Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense
Senator Warren believes that civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle and will be voting against rewriting federal law for Austin; “[R]egardless of who the next Secretary of Defense is, it is clear that a lot of work must be done to restore civilian voices to their proper balance in the decision-making processes of the defense department”
Washington, DC – During today's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) stated she will vote against rewriting federal law for General Lloyd Austin, the nominee to be Secretary of the Department of Defense (DOD), and urged the Senate to restore civilian voices to their proper place in the decision-making processes of the defense department.
According to federal law, an individual must be retired from active duty military service for seven years to be eligible for appointment as the Secretary of Defense. The last time Congress changed federal law to let a retired general run the DOD was in 2017. The November 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission report highlighted some of the consequences, including muting civilian voices.
In response to Senator Warren, Dr. Lindsay Cohn and Dr. Kathleen McInnis agreed that civilian control of the military goes beyond the position of Secretary of Defense and that much more work must be done to ensure decision-making is in the hands of civilian leaders.
U.S. Senate Armed Services
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Since civilian control of the military isn’t just about who leads the Department of Defense, it’s about how decisions throughout the department get made, who’s at the table, whose voice gets listened to.
The last time Congress changed federal law to let a general run DOD was in 2017. And the November 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission report, published a month before Secretary Mattis stepped down, highlighted the consequences of this move. So, I want to read from their report. They said:
“civilian voices have been relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy, undermining the concept of civilian control. The implementation of the National Defense Strategy must feature empowered civilians fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, particularly regarding issues of force management… It is critical that DOD—and Congress—reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance.”
Senator Warren: Dr. Cohn, do you agree with that characterization, and do you think it remains true today at the end of the Trump administration?
Dr. Lindsay Cohn: Yes, Senator. I do agree with the characterization, and I do think it remains true today.
Senator Warren: Thank you. Dr. McInnis, regardless of who is the next Secretary of Defense, what does that individual need to do to restore the balance between OSD and the Joint Staff?
Dr. Kathleen McInnis: Thank you, Senator. If you agree that the civilian pillar within the Department of Defense ought to be strengthened to-- because or as it follows from civilian voices being muted, then there’s-- there’s some-- some simple sort of human resources fixes that can be-- can be applied to addressing this. Thinking about the workforce health of the national security civil service and within the office of the Secretary of Defense, in particular. Thinking about things like the implications of furloughs, you know. OSD civilians are furloughed when there’s shutdowns. Their joint staff counterparts are not. Thinking through things like to what extent civilian voices are included in process and planning reviews and more planning reviews. Are there-- is that adequate?
There is-- it’s such a multifaceted set of issues that one could easily see. Not only the next Secretary of Defense paying considerable attention to it but also there’s a number of congressional tools that might be applied to this, including, you know, maybe establishing a commission or in doing hearings and so forth and so forth.
Senator Warren: Alright, good. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. You know, one of my Republican colleagues -- I don’t know who because it was done anonymously -- but one of my Republican colleagues gave a quote to a New York Times reporter expressing regret over their vote to grant Secretary Mattis a waiver, saying that Secretary Mattis ran the department “more like a super-sized combatant commander.”
Dr. Cohn, an “imbalance” in civil-military relations sounds bad, but what I really want to understand is what does it mean in practice? Why is it a problem if the military decisionmakers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff are in fact running the show?
Dr. Cohn: Thank you, Senator. The way I would characterize this is basically as a difference in logic. In the military, and I’m not saying that every person in the military has this mindset exclusively, but it is normal and natural for the military to want overwhelming resources, overwhelming force, to be allowed to use that force in as unrestrained a manner as possible because that is how you win battles with the fewest losses on your own side. And if you spend all of your time thinking about and planning for certain types of contingencies, those are the types of solutions that you are most likely to reach for when new and unexpected situations come up.
The difference between that kind of mentality -- or that kind of what I would call logic and what I would call a political logic -- is thinking about how to use force, the threat of force, the information gained through the use of force, as part of a larger bargaining action, as part of a larger political goal or political aim or political strategy that seeks to accomplish things that are in the national interest more broadly rather than in the narrow interest of say winning battles or winning wars.
Wars and battles are only useful if they accomplish some kind of political end and that requires somebody there who understands how the use of force can be used for bargaining. Thank you.
Senator Warren: Thank you. That’s actually very helpful. Thank you.
You know, civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle in our country since its founding. And since 1947, we’ve put that into practice by choosing Secretaries of Defense from civilian life. And I believe in this principle deeply and it’s why I voted against rewriting federal law for Jim Mattis, and it’s why I will do the same for Lloyd Austin.
If Congress grants Mr. Austin a waiver, I’ll consider his nomination independently on the merits. And regardless of who the next Secretary of Defense is, it is clear that a lot of work must be done to restore civilian voices to their proper balance in the decision-making process of the defense department. So, I stand ready to work with anyone who is willing to help make sure that happens.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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