Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Executive Branch

Let’s Stop Being Cavalier About Civilian Control of the Military

Peter Feaver, Michèle Flournoy
Tuesday, September 13, 2022, 8:01 AM

An open letter by former secretaries of defense and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff represents a remarkable consensus on what core principles of civil-military relations are necessary for maintaining the rule of law.

The Pentagon, the Department of Defense's headquarters, houses approximately 24,000 military and civilian employees. (Source: "DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force.", Public domain, via Wikimedia)

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The United States needs to review the basic principles of civilian control of the military and recommit to best practices in civil-military relations. That is the underlying message of a remarkable open letter by former secretaries of defense and former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published last week on War on the Rocks. 

This is the first time such a distinguished group—every confirmed secretary of defense serving in the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations and the former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff covering the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations—has collectively weighed in on this bedrock foundation of the United States’ constitutional republic: what civilian control of the military does and does not mean, and how to preserve it. (Full disclosure: One of us, Feaver, helped the group work through the process of drafting the statement.)

That this extraordinary group felt the need to make this statement at this time is as newsworthy as what they said. For most of U.S. history, ordinary Americans have taken civilian control of the military for granted and barely given a thought to how civilians and the military interact within the political system. To be sure, academics and expert practitioners have paid closer attention and in recent times have been sounding the alarm about the erosion of norms and the flouting of taboos that have kept the U.S. military apolitical and served the country well for decades. Now that message has been amplified in a dramatic way with the collective voice of the nation’s most experienced defense leaders. Notably, the group began their work in May/June, and the timing of the release was not pegged to any single event. 

The content of the statement is not particularly controversial, although experts might quibble with the wording of this or that phrase. It articulated 16 core principles, including the following: 

  • Civilian control operates within a constitutional framework under the rule of law and with the key actors swearing an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not pledging loyalty to an individual.
  • Civilian control of the military is shared across all three branches of government—the executive branch, Congress, and the judiciary—and the guidelines and best practices in each branch are well established.
  • Civilian control is reinforced by effective day-to-day relations between the civilian and military participants. These take place through deliberative processes to extensively review proposed laws and policies to ensure that they are legal and well founded. Civilian officials should provide the military with ample opportunities to express their concerns in appropriate venues. But ultimately, the president as commander in chief has the right to be wrong, and the military is obligated to implement the president’s directives provided they are legal. In turn, it is civilian leaders who are  ultimately responsible for the consequences of the actions they direct.
  • Building mutual trust is essential to overcoming the natural friction built into the iterative dialogue between civilian and military leaders.
  • Long-standing Defense Department policy and regulations put sharp limits on any public partisan role for the military. Both military and civilian leaders should take extra care to keep the military away from partisan political activity.
  • During presidential elections, the military must attend to two duties: They must assist the current commander in chief in the exercise of their constitutional duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, while also preparing for whomever the American electorate chooses to be the next commander in chief, be that the incumbent or someone new.

With these and other principles in mind, the statement dismisses what might be called the naïve theory of civilian control that has taken hold in recent years—the idea that every whim of the president should be immediately executed as a direct order without any further thought. Thankfully, the United States does not have an absolute monarch who can muse, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and see it translated into an assassination. In a democracy, that can be as dangerous as rank insubordination, if a president is reckless. It is hard not to think of President Trump and the way his impulsive, idiosyncratic approach to the commander-in-chief role made this rearticulation of first principles necessary. The Trump experience shows how civil-military relations can be tested, how best practices in civil-military relations can protect the country, and how one partner in the civil-military equation can in some circumstances compensate for dangerous behavior by the other. 

According to numerous insider reports and countless tweets observable to all, President Trump was given to off-the-cuff expressions of opinion and intent. He would say out loud what previous presidents would say only to themselves—the equivalent of “I wish we could do this or I wish we could accomplish that.” However, when his opinion was translated into a fully staffed option with all the risks and second-order effects spelled out, President Trump as often as not would back down from his initial expressed wish. 

Some of Trump’s supporters did not like him backing off of his more reckless policies, and late in the administration the interagency policy development process had broken down so thoroughly that some of Trump’s most dangerous notions—for instance, his effort after losing the election to get all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before Biden’s inauguration, a timeline that would have produced even greater logistical chaos and catastrophe than what happened in August 2021—came very close to fruition. In the face of this breakdown in regular order, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and others reportedly pushed back and worked hard to persuade the president to change his mind. 

For this and similar efforts, many critics have accused Milley of undermining civilian control. Yet, as the statement from the formers makes clear, Milley was in fact reinforcing civilian control, making sure President Trump was fully informed of the costs of his proposed policies and not the victim of the schemes of lower-ranking staff who were whispering in his ear but were neither in the chain of command nor statutory, Senate-confirmed advisers responsible for national security policy. 

Whether each and every action by Trump’s senior team met the standards outlined by the formers is something specialists will be debating for years. But given the conditions under which they served, the efforts by certain key officials to preserve regular order and to remind the rank and file of this did not flout the principle of civilian control. 

The statement also makes clear that asking the active-duty military to substitute for law enforcement is a highly fraught mission. Of course, there are precedents in American history, but those precedents largely underscore that this mission should not be undertaken lightly. A subset of this group, the former secretaries of defense, weighed in on this particular matter with an op-ed on the dangers of deploying active forces for law enforcement purposes on the eve of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Perhaps most important of all, the statement underscores that both civilians and the military are responsible for adhering to best practices. We would go further to say that we have learned in recent years that civilians can mess up civilian control and civil-military relations just as easily as the military can. This statement should become a touchstone for every civilian serving in a national security post as much as it should for military leaders.

Going forward, that may point to the value of the formers’ statement: It forms the grading rubric by which to evaluate the current leadership—Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Milley, and the rest of the Biden team—as well as their eventual successors. The formers seem to be saying: Grade civilian and military leaders according to these time-tested standards and not according to the mood of a polarized Twitter mob. If, as it did on Jan. 6, the mob mobilizes again in the real world and not just in internet flame wars, the Republic may depend on civilian and military leaders heeding the advice of these former leaders and following the best practices that have preserved effective civilian control of the military and the United States’ constitutional democracy thus far.

Peter Feaver is a professor of political science at Duke University and author of the forthcoming book, “Thanks for Your Service: The Causes and Consequences of Public Trust in the Military.” He headed the strategic planning office on the National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2007.
Michèle Flournoy is co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors and former under secretary for policy in the Department of Defense (2009-2012).

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