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By picking Austin, Biden scratches the Pentagon's seven-year itch

By picking Austin, Biden scratches the Pentagon's seven-year itch
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For the second time in four years, a general is to be nominated as Secretary of Defense. And for the second time in four years, Congress will have to waive the provisions of the 1947 National Security Act in order for Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on race theory, 'white rage' Top US general downplays Taliban battlefield gains MORE, the former commander of Central Command, to take office since he retired just over four years ago.

The National Security Act requires that seven years must elapse before a retired military person can lead the Department of Defense (DOD). Congress previously granted only one other such waiver — to George Catlett Marshall, the nation’s most respected World War II leader who, at the time the act was passed, was serving as Secretary of State but who technically remained on active duty by virtue of his five-star rank as general of the Army.  

President-elect Biden has justified his intention to nominate Austin by arguing that “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.” 

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It is not as if there were no outstanding civilians Biden might have chosen to be defense secretary and who, by definition, would not have required a waiver, however. In particular, Michèle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson arguably possess as much “intimate knowledge” of DOD as Austin. Moreover, while Biden argued that “if confirmed, he [Austin] will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department — another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure,” the same could have been said about Johnson, also an African American, who also served in DOD. And had Biden chosen Flournoy, she would have been the first female to lead the department.

Austin has had an exemplary military career and is a respected leader. The issue is not his suitability for the job, but rather whether it is important to preserve the National Security Act’s seven-year provision to ensure civilian control of the military. There are those who argue that former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE tended to pay more attention to the advice of the Joint Staff than to that of his own civilian office. 

On the other hand, many observers have remarked that, for much of the past decade, the civilians in the Office of the Secretary simply have not been as capable as their counterparts on the Joint Staff, which invariably attracts the best and the brightest the military can offer. If the civilian-military relationship is out of balance, it was so prior to Mattis’s having taken office and, therefore, was not because of anything Mattis did or did not do. 

Moreover, the DOD has been led by civilians since Mattis departed nearly two years ago, but there is no evidence that the civilian-military balance has been restored; it will take more than the appointment of a civilian to do so.

It is arguable that Mattis’s record as secretary demonstrates that seven years need not elapse before a talented military leader serves at the helm of the Defense Department. Some gap between the completion of military service and the assumption of civilian leadership at the DOD is necessary, but it need not be seven years. Perhaps it should be reduced to four years, surely enough time for most military retirees to adjust to their civilian status.

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Some retired officers never can convert to civilian life. Others — for example, Adm. James Stavridis, who became dean of the Fletcher School upon his retirement — do so virtually immediately. The seven-year rule does not and cannot really address an officer’s fitness to serve as Secretary of Defense; reducing the required gap to four years would expand the pool of deserving personnel who could lead the department. 

Doing so, rather than maintaining an arbitrary barrier that can be, has been and again may be an end-run by Congress, will simply redound to the department’s and the nation’s advantage at a time when, as Biden rightly points out, the nation indeed is faced with a host of “challenges and crises.”

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.