Civilians and the Military Under Trump

Photo: Flickr/Office of the Secretary of Defense

In the wake of retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor on Monday over his communications with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., President Donald Trump is considering three former military officers to replace Flynn. This follows a notable pattern of the new president’s reliance on retired military personnel in top national security positions.

In addition to Flynn’s replacement, Marine General John Kelly now serves as Secretary of Homeland Security, and General James Mattis was confirmed as Secretary of Defense after receiving a special congressional waiver due to his retirement from the Marine Corps less than seven years ago. Taken together, these appointments make for one of the most military-heavy cabinets since President Ulysses S. Grant.

For many, this reliance on former top brass is a positive sign that Trump – whose national security experience is slim at best – wants to surround himself with competent and knowledgeable leaders. However, critics worry that this overreliance on military figures could shut out civilian voices in foreign policy decision-making, and wonder what it will mean for principles of civil American civil-military relations.

For the most part, this debate has focused on the issue of civilian control over the military, particularly how the appointment of General Mattis as Secretary of Defense might undermine that principle. The traditional concept of civilian control imagines a strict separation of roles between civilian and military leaders. The elected civilian leader provides strategic policy guidance informed by political and diplomatic imperatives, while the armed services exert military force to achieve that policy and advise the White House on military matters through the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This basic framework encourages a military class that emulates the apolitical professional – some, like General George Marshall, decline even to vote – and has pushed most presidents to install civilian chiefs at the Department of Defense (DOD) as a means, both practical and symbolic, of establishing civilian control.

However, according to Don Snider, a professor of Political Science at West Point, “the issue of [civilian] control is a red herring.” Focusing only on civilian control of the military, says Snider, throws civil-military relations “into a state of tension and division, but that is not the point.” The true goal of civil-military relations is to build trust between and meld the respective expertise of military and civilian leaders in order to produce the most effective strategic outcomes. With that goal in mind, the ideal state of U.S. civil-military relations is not defined by strictly separated civilian and military spheres, it is a blended model in which political leaders have knowledge of how the military operates, and military officers are competent in political and diplomatic affairs.

By this logic, Mattis’ confirmation as secretary of defense is not, in and of itself, a repudiation of the tenets of civilian control. Nevertheless, as a recently retired flag officer, the new defense secretary will face several challenges managing the DoD as an institution, especially when it comes to maintaining the Pentagon’s own civil-military balance. In addition to some two million servicemen and women, the DoD employs 742,000 civilian personnel. Thus, says Kathleen Hicks, former Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Policy for the DoD, Mattis will need to demonstrate that “he values the input and advice of his civilian staff.”  Historically secretaries of defense often sideline the civilian employees of the DoD in favor of military staff, but according to Hicks this would be doubly dangerous for Mattis. First, because it would deprive the former general of a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and second, because the “civilian cohort…is institutionally critical to maintaining civilian control.”

Whether Mattis can win over and effectively utilize the expertise of both the civilian staff and active service employees at the pentagon remains to be seen. However, beyond the DoD itself, the number of former military officers in Trump’s cabinet also raises broader questions about American civil-military relations writ large. The United States has now been at war for over 15 years in multiple theaters, and the military consistently polls as the country’s most respected and trusted institution. Yet only 0.4 percent of the U.S. population currently serves in that military, and the number of total veterans as a percentage of the population has been declining for years.

This dynamic is also evident in U.S. political institutions. From a high of 72 percent in the 1971-72 congress, the proportion of veterans serving in congress has now dropped to 18 percent in the House and 20 percent in the Senate, while 2012 marked the first time in 80 years that neither presidential candidate had ever served in the military – an event repeated in 2016. This “veteran’s deficit” has led many, including former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to worry that “there is developing a wider and deeper gap between civilian society and our military.”

One result of this gap is a situation in which, as Snider describes it, you have a “military that is respected but not well understood.” That lack of understanding has the potential to undermine readiness through the insufficient or inefficient allocation of funds by political leaders. At the same time, this understanding gap can also lead to an overreliance on military advice by civilian leaders who do not feel qualified to question it. This can have the effect of crowding out more diverse points of view from civilian defense experts.  

For the moment, it is this second issue that applies most directly to Trump and his cabinet. Tapping military expertise to inform administration decisions is by no means a bad idea. However, writes Hicks, “the Trump administration’s strong bias away from civilians in these [defense] positions” risks sidelining the critical insights of civilian defense experts, or even deepening the gap of understanding between the military and political leaders. According to Hicks, saving “top defense posts for people drawn from civilian life has helped generate the world’s most vibrant defense community in the United States.” 

Fritz Lodge is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.