Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, updates reporters at the Pentagon about the military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.

Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, updates reporters at the Pentagon about the military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Problem With the SecDef Purity Test

You don’t want a general, a man, a war veteran — and everyone in the defense industry is evil?

So, you don’t want a general to be defense secretary. You don’t want anyone who has worked in the defense industry. You don’t want a man. You don’t want anyone who supported a prior war. You don’t want anyone who carried out their duties in Iraq or Afghanistan. You don’t want — what exactly do you want?

These are the questions for the liberal think-tankers and advocacy groups who decried, in turn, the appointment, or potential appointment, of Mark Esper, Michèle Flournoy, and now Lloyd Austin to lead the Department of Defense. 

In our time of historic social upheaval and change, every leadership position is seen as an opportunity. So it’s quite expected and welcome to see Team Biden trying delicately to balance the Cabinet with faces that more accurately resemble the kaleidoscope of the American people, especially after Trump’s four years of overwhelmingly lily-white men. This is the era of identity politics and Black lives mattering and MeToo movements moving. 

What should be more concerning to U.S. national security leaders is the purity test that pits the defense industry against the entire country. By the sound of activists like the Project on Government Oversight, Code Pink, and liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., if you are an American who has ever worked for a defense company, you are not to be trusted with public office ever.

Esper was right to push back on Warren’s theatrical attacks during his confirmation hearing for defense secretary. "I think the presumption is, for some reason, anybody comes from business or corporate world is corrupt,” he said at the time, and there’s no evidence that, once confirmed, he behaved unethically with regards to his industry ties. 

Now the left wing is coming for Austin, retired four-star general and current member of various corporate boards, including defense giant Raytheon. It’s been less than 24 hours since the news broke but the breathless invocations of “military-industrial complex” that probably helped sandbag Flournoy’s path to the post are rapidly growing.

God bless Dwight Eisenhower. He gave us that timeless warning. But time and Twitter has reduced it to a refrigerator-magnet quote used lazily and irresponsibly. Eisenhower was not opposed to the defense industry or those who led it; he believed a permanent armaments industry was necessary, however regrettably, for the new postwar world. He sought to warn us simply not to let it get out of hand: “We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Today’s warnings go miles beyond Eisenhower’s reasoned caution. Here’s Common Defense, a veterans advocacy group: “We need a Secretary who puts the American people ahead of stockholders or the profits of huge defense corporations.” Cabinet members, they say, “must recognize the negative impact of these corporations on society and use their knowledge to actively work to reduce their overwhelming power.” Combine that with Austin’s recent military service, they say, and his pick becomes “a grave, democracy-threatening mistake.”

Any man or woman may ultimately prove their faults in office, but it’s unclear to me how putting a retired officer in charge of the Pentagon “weakens civilian control,” or leaves the military weaker in Washington, or increases the chance of politicization, or furthers the military’s insularity. 

Now, is the U.S. spending more than ever on defense? Yes. Is the U.S. military bigger and does it have more firepower than ever? Yes. Is the U.S. engaged in “endless wars” and nuclear standoffs and perpetual security crises? Yes. Does that mean the military-industrial complex has taken over the country? Hardly. If anything, policy wonks and leaders like Flournoy have had more sway over U.S. national security for the last 20 years than any corporate board executive at Boeing or Raytheon hired to execute it. 

Nowhere does Eisenhower say that being a former general, or an industry executive or board member or advisor, disqualifies him or her for services as a future civilian defense secretary. Yes, for retired general officers, there is a cooling-off period of seven years. Arguably, that rule is outdated and now harmful. It was made before the United States entered 20 years of continued warfare after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In those 20 years, the American civilian population arguably has grown more disconnected from the military and national security. Meanwhile, we now have a generation of thousands of capable, qualified, and available leaders who wore the uniform. From which pool should a president seek to pick a defense secretary? Are ethical men and women not to be found in both?

We need watchdogs. We welcome watchdogs. But we need an “alert and knowledgeable” set of them, not blanket warnings about the proverbial revolving door every time someone from the private sector tosses their hat into the ring. One of this country’s problems is that not enough private leaders are willing to become public ones, already. 

Few transactions in the United States go through as much scrutiny and oversight as defense contracts. My first paying job in journalism was to help expose billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts being handed out to rebuild Iraq immediately after the 2003 invasion. The assumption by many at the time was that those contracts must be going right to George W. Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s friends and family. It turns out, that’s not how federal government contracting works. Indeed, the system was skewed, problematically, in favor of large companies connected to the Bush administration’s policy decisions to almost instantaneously ramp up a massive land war and nation-building in the Middle East, but that’s not the same thing. 

If liberals and watchdogs want to continue to raise ethical flags about current and former defense executives and general officers being put up for the Pentagon’s civilian leadership roles, then they’d be better served to come up with more evidence to back their claims. Otherwise, perhaps it’s time Congress update its laws and perspectives to reflect America’s existing talent pool for defense leadership. Eisenhower wanted “alert and knowledgeable,” not panicky and shallow. At the moment, too many of today’s well-intentioned critics sound less like Ike, and more like Rudy Giuliani.