How to Turn General Austin Into Secretary Austin
Some advice from the author of “The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense.”
Dear General Austin:
The law requires that the Secretary of Defense – the position that President-elect Biden wants you to fill – “shall be appointed from civilian life.” That’s a challenge for you, since after nearly 41 years in the Army, you have been a civilian for only 4-½ years. You have a lot to learn, and unlearn.
Congress wrote that law in 1947 because it wanted to assert civilian control over the large standing forces it created to deter and defend against the Soviet Union. Lawmakers even insisted that the defense secretary be out of uniform, in case they had served at least ten years. That law would have to be waived for you to become secretary, and that has happened only twice, each time in very exceptional circumstances.
In order to convince Congress to grant you a waiver and confirm you as secretary, you need to convince them that you have truly become a civilian. Here’s how.
First, you have to understand that the job of defense secretary is mostly a civilian job requiring civilian skills. The secretary is manager of 1.4 million active military personnel and 861,000 civilians and a budget over $740 billion a year. He has to figure out how to recruit, train, and retain those people, few of whom will actually be in combat situations at any one time. He has to make tough decisions on what weapons to buy and what technologies to pursue for future capabilities.
Remember, too, that the secretary is also a member of the National Security Council, who has to advise the president not only on the possible use of military force, but also on nonmilitary tools to advance American interests. That means you have to know about diplomacy and trade and foreign economic activities. In recent decades, the secretary has often been our chief diplomat dealing with foreign countries with significant military capabilities.
Second, you have to look at the world through civilian lenses. A warrior studies the order of battle of the possible enemy and studies the terrain map of the likely battlefield. A civilian official needs to understand the demography of friends and adversaries, the ethnolinguistic maps and cultural differences. You have to learn conflict management instead of military victory.
Third, you need to listen to your civilian subordinates and make good use of their talents. Even those with some prior military experience now speak a different language and act differently. They speak of legal provisions and budget categories. They compete for resources, argue about tradeoffs, and often compromise on gray decisions instead of choosing between black and white.
The civilian chain of command, especially in leaky Washington, is rarely snap-to obedient the way the military chain of command is. Persuasion is more durable than ordering, so you should listen and engage before deciding.
James Mattis, the previous recipient of the kind of waiver you will need, was a disappointment as secretary because he surrounded himself with officers rather than using and empowering his civilian aides. You should make a point to sharply limit the number of uniformed people in your immediate office and make a point of building contacts in the civilian world instead of relying on old military buddies.
Thinking like a civilian also means appreciating the service of the millions of Americans who aren’t in military uniforms but still work to keep our people safe, healthy, well-educated, and prosperous. They have need and interests that have to be considered along with the demands of military capability.
Of course you have acquired some of these civilian skills as part of your distinguished military career. But now you will have to apply them through bureaucratic hierarchies that have their own special authorities and practices. You will have to adapt the Defense Department to the broader American economy, which is faster and often smarter than the Pentagon careerists. You have to learn to think like those civilians outside government.
Colin Powell, another general-turned-Cabinet secretary, used to tell his military staff to watch the top-rated television shows so that they would know what Americans were seeing and possibly thinking about. You might want to do something similar yourself and with your staff, including now social media, to get a sense of what people know and care about.
Dr. Charles A. Stevenson is the author of SecDef: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense. He teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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