Pentagon Nom Respects Civil-Military Divide! Biden Says, Arguing For Civil-Military Waiver | Talking Points Memo

President-elect Joe Biden argued Wednesday that his pick for secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, deserves a waiver to serve in that role despite recently leaving the military. 

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Democrats who opposed Mattis’ waiver, or spoke of it as a one-off exception, will need to “twist themselves into pretzels” to ignore the same concerns for Austin, as The Washington Post put it. Some have begun their stretching routines

A shame to put the Congressional party through all this, especially when there were other candidates available.


I think Biden ran an incredibly smart and disciplined campaign, and so I find it really surprising they made such an obvious tactical error as this. I have no doubt that Austin would be an effective SecDef, but I wouldn’t be able to support the waiver either.


I have very mixed emotions about this choice. I, personally, believe Congress erred in waiving the rule for Mattis. My default position is that SecDef should always be a civilian without military entanglements.

Although I have no reason not to give Biden the benefit of the doubt, this timely and long-overdue historical precedent comes at the cost of normalizing military leadership of DOD.

Austin presents a real dilemma, with no easy answers. I’m truly torn.


Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), himself a military veteran, has not weighed in. Reed voted in favor of Mattis’ waiver but stated he would never do that again.

Lloyd Austin is doubtless a nice guy, but he brings in a lot of conflicts of interest as the NYT pointed out. He should just get more Raytheon stock, enjoy his dividends and comfortable retirement. While the LA Times is predicting the Roaring 20s ahead,, the more likely situation is low-growth, if any, and lots of displacement in the world. I was expecting somebody along the lines of Rosa Brooks,


BS. There is absolutely no excuse to have a general as SecDef.


But the right former general would be great.

ETA Hey TPM, why the exclamation point in the headline?

No. The military must be firmly in civilian control, the SecDef is not a military position is mostly bureaucratic. Besides, last thing you want is being headed by former General who is besties with the former generals that swarm the Defense Contractors, and Austin is one of those.


We disagree. I believe Joe Biden should pick his cabinet.

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I speak as a former Army grunt (drafted 1969) and son of a career soldier (WWI and Korea). I have also spent almost 50 years professionally working on veterans issues, including the desperate need for DoD and VA to get along on things as simple as transfer of medical records. I understand the concept of separating the civilian agenda from the military agenda but I have also witnessed over the years civilian leadership (including under Democratic administrations) that had no idea whatsoever of what was important to the members of the Armed Forces. This has created a deep distrust among those in uniform of those in suits, and often rightfully so. The uniforms are the ones willing to die. So, I appreciate the concerns about this but we have an all volunteer military these days, with a disproportionate fraction of people of color. If those in uniform cannot trust those in suits we have a problem. I actually think Biden’s choice is a good one for morale and for the country.


I think you are being hyperbolic and a bit disingenuous.

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Your default position is correct.

Congress did err in granting Mattis a waiver. Marshall himself felt it was an error giving him the waiver. And neither Mattis nor Austin are Marshall.

And that’s sort of the main point for me. There are plenty of other highly qualified people Biden can name SecDef, so why in the hell cause this brush up? Its not like Austin stands head and shoulders over everyone.

Its an extremely dangerous tradition to be tossing away like this. We do not want SecDef becoming the golden ring that every general in the Armed Services is reaching for. That way creates an insular military that actually doesn’t have to be responsive to civilian command.


You’re point is actually a big part of the problem. A military that distrusts civilian leadership should have their own leadership and just do what they want instead? That’s how coups happen.

And what’s the next step? Only people in the military can be Commander in Chief? Because, there has always been the sort of distrust you mention between the Armed Services and every President.

And lets be clear, we are actually at a very dangerous time with regards to the civilian-military relationship in this country. We had the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff walking the streets of DC during protests in full uniform, while the 82nd Airborne was being put on notice to deploy against US citizens in just this past year. We deployed military 2 years ago on our own border to conduct civilian law enforcement activities. And, we just had a record number of career officers serve in the previous Administration, from Chief of Staff, to SecDef to NSA to CIA Director. That’s light years away from what the founders envisioned; founders that didn’t even want a standing army.


In the general election, yes, but his campaign in the primary was a bit of a mess. I fear this choice is one of those “run against the left so to get Republican votes” mistakes he was prone to trying in the primary.

Of course all of the founding fathers had no issue with GENERAL George Washington being president of the United States. Hopefully you agree that Biden is not Trump who is the one who really abrogated the system.

ETA And the military has pushed back the entire time.

What we can say is that they did not include the restriction in the Constitution. It’s a statute.

Speaking of which, it’s a post-war thing (National Security Act, 1947). Originally the period was ten years. It was reduced to seven years in 2007.

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You are trying to organize the rule around the outlier, which is Trump. This has never really been an issue before. I was working with a VA-DoD Task Force 2 years ago on TBI, and then Dump and his SecDef basically said these are headaches. TBI is debilitating. In that moment, the SecDef lost the troops. I never said the military should only trust its own leadership–that would be stupid. I am saying let’s consider each candidate on their merit, not according to some archaic and inflexible rule.


Hamilton Nolan built his career figuring out the food-chemistry magic of Key Lime Pie. But more recently, he’s been doing some thinking about why the Democrats don’t use their leverage. And this is against a party that typically starts negotiations by demanding weapons and hostages.


I am having a real hard time warming up to the notion that the only good choice for Sec of Def is one that requires a(nother) waiver of a heretofore hallowed rule, and perceived breaching of the civil-military divide. Furthermore, I don’t like it at all that a brother has been thrown into the hopper to be spun around and tumbled, and will likely have to beg and fight and claw to gain an appointment while others sail on through. I’m not sure the job is worth all that, and I fully expect the gentleman to come to this conclusion in short order and withdraw. It’s hurtful mostly because it didn’t have to happen. Could they not have exercised the option of naming him a COVID vaccination rollout czar? I adore this Biden/Harris administration-elect, but this seems like a stumble (or a miscalculation at best).