January 12, 2021
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, today questioned witnesses at a committee hearing on why civilian control of the U.S. military is critical and how this might affect the intended nomination of Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense for President-Elect Joe Biden.
Witnesses included: Dr. Lindsay P. Cohn, Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College; and Dr. Kathleen J. McInnis, Specialist in International Security at the Congressional Research Service.
Inhofe: Thank you, Senator Reed, and I think it’d be a good idea, and since I mentioned that I didn’t believe that a waiting period was really necessary so it wouldn’t be necessary to waive it although I’ve studied a little more the opening statements of both of our witnesses so let me just do this I’m going to go ahead and read the part of Title X verbatim, quote — I’m quoting now: “There is a Secretary of Defense, who is the head of the Department of Defense, appointed from civilian life by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. A person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force.”
Dr. Cohn, this is kind of arbitrary, I guess, the seven years. Is there are a reason for seven years instead of four years or one year? In general, is this a threshold we ought to keep or should a change maybe be considered?
Cohn: Thank you, Mr. Chairman you are correct. The number seven is somewhat arbitrary. The original number, 10, was also arbitrary — it was a nice round number, and seven was the compromise between leaving it at 10 and reducing it to five, which was the debate that came up in 2007-2008. However, I do think that seven years is actually a good period because, as multiple people have pointed out, it allows a minimum of two rotations for military deployments and assignments, which means that that allows for the command relationships and the people in those command positions to change significantly from the time that the recently retired officer was in the position of command. That helps in a lot of ways to mitigate the problem that both you and Mr. Ranking member mentioned about Mr. Mattis relying heavily on his network of military contacts.
Inhofe: In my opening statement, I talked about the NDS, the commission — and we’re following that pretty closely. I’m going to go ahead and read what that commission says. Now this is the NDS, I don’t have that with me but I do have the quote from it. The report says: “…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 NDS must feature empowered civilians fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, particularly regarding issues of force management.” Starting with Dr. Cohn and then Dr. McInnis, do you agree with the assessment by the NDS commission that “civilian voices are relatively muted?” If so, why is this such a big problem for our democracy?
Cohn: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would say yes, I do agree with that assessment. I think that the civilian side of the Department of Defense has lost both influence and respect over the last several years, and I think that’s a problem for the reasons outlined in my written testimony in terms of the need for diverse experiences and particularly the need for and understanding of what I have called political logic — that is people who are dedicated to thinking about defense and security in policy terms and not just in what we might think of as practical military terms. I think that the military side is well represented in the debates internal to the department. What’s happening now is the civilian side is less well represented, and that creates an imbalance and I think produces worse policy.
Inhofe: Dr. McInnis, do you agree? I think the key part there is “civilian voices are relatively muted”? Do you think so?
McInnis: Senator, there is considerable evidence that is part of the public record now that suggests that that is indeed the case. That comports with the National Defense Strategy Commission’s assessment. It’s worth noting that the Office of the Secretary of Defense — the civilian voices that are in this case being relatively muted — is the practical eyes, arms, ears, legs of the Secretary of Defense. They are there to do the day-to-day work of civilian oversight of the military. They work with their counterparts overseas to understand political-military dynamics that might impact the national security of the United States. They go to war zones and help military commanders really understand the secretary’s intents. They are the practical, where the rubber meets the road of civilian-military relations. The Office of the Secretary of Defense is where it happens. According to the National Defense Strategy Commission as well as a growing chorus of voices that I referred to in my opening statement, those civilian voices are relatively muted now. A couple of reasons that are worth calling attention to include again this question of appointment of political appointees within the system, the failure to do so and having civil servants being in acting capacities have served to — if there’s nobody in the civilian side of the house to do the work, then the advice, the decisions on matters of national strategy are going to migrate inherently to the institutions that are appropriately staffed. Why does this matter? I’d refer once again to the National Defense Strategy and the National Defense Strategy Commission’s reports. The NDSC Commission notes that China is engaged in a whole-of-society strategy to accomplish its objectives, many of which are counter to US objectives. The political-military nature of the security environment which we are operating in requires political-military connections and connective tissue between the military instrument and the broader political objectives of this country and the broader prerogatives of the president himself. Without the civilian side of the house, without that civilian pillar being able to do its job effectively, we are missing a critical voice, a critical note, a critical connective tissue in this discussion, if you are agree with the National Defense Strategy Commission’s report on this matter.
Inhofe: We’re going to be having the hearing coming so if the waiver is granted, I’d like to ask each one of you, what types of questions should we ask to mitigate some of the potential problems that might come with having this waiver granted? Let’s hear from both of you, Dr. Cohn and Dr. McInnis. What should we be pursuing in the hearing in the event that this waiver is granted?
Cohn: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I think a couple of questions that you ought to ask Mr. Austin would include things like how he plans to demonstrate his commitment to empowering the civilian side of the Department of Defense, how he plans to foster relations of respect and trust between the civilian staff and the uniformed staff. I think you should ask him how he sees the differences between his role as a military commanding officer and his role as the Secretary of Defense, and you should want to know that he is committed to the idea of being a political officer and no longer a military actor receiving an obeying orders or simply giving military advice, that he should be willing to engage with the press, willing to be transparent with Congress, with this committee and with House Armed Services Committee, and that he should generally express an understanding of the different nature of the role he will be playing. Thank you.
Inhofe: OK, thank you. Dr. McInnis, what do you think?
McInnis: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The question invites us to consider that the Secretary of Defense is one person that’s put in an institutional role that is inherently political, inherently multifaceted. As one scholar put it, it is the impossible job within the department because there’s so much to it, and therefore the health of the institution of the Department of Defense is critically important to ensuring that the day-to-day business, any strengths, any weaknesses, are managed and that the business of national security can be advanced. In order to be effective, the Secretary of Defense needs to have the confidence of the president, the Congress, and the military and the Department of Defense, so to that end if you are interested in teasing out whether those relationships will be solid and comport with what you would like to see. Some suggestions might include whether or not the nominee would be amenable to taking a close look at the health of the civilian workforce. With respect to the relations with the Congress, one proposal that was tabled last time when the nomination of Secretary Mattis was considered was whether or not the then-nominee Mattis would testify in front of the House Armed Services Committee — that might be another option to consider.
Inhofe: OK, that makes sense. Senator Reed.