Unaccountable U.S. Military Drifts Away from Civilian Control

Under Trump, civilian military oversight experts are making a run for the exits, dangerously leaving defense policy decisions in the hands of generals and the war industry.

Paratroopers assigned to U.S. Army Europe's A Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), conduct movement to contact training in Grafenwoehr, Germany, in March 2014. (Photo: Markus Rauchenberger for U.S. Army Europe)

A continuing decline in the role, respect and influence of civilians in guiding military decisions is placing the U.S. in more danger than most realize.

The U.S. Constitution deliberately directed what the framers felt were strong controls of civilians over the military. That includes that the President must be a civilian, even while giving him or her the role of Commander-in-Chief over the various military agencies. In recognition of the serious nature of what such powers might cause with an overly dominant Executive Branch of the government, the Constitution also named Congress as the only part of government with the power to declare war. But what happens when the President is mentally incapable of understanding issues and making sound decisions and Congress is entirely corrupt?

Over the history of the United States, the U.S. Congress has not done much about holding tight to that authority. Instead it has ceded power to the Executive Branch to wage war on virtually any excuse. It has almost never challenged the Executive Branch’s right to do so in modern times.

What that has created is a situation under which the single best line of defense against an overly aggressive military and its Commander-in-Chief is civilian oversight of the military within the Defense Department itself. By organizational structure, that has been the role of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).

OSD is explicitly a civilian arm of the DoD. It is the group with principal responsibility for advising the Secretary on policy analysis, how to structure and organize resources to support those policies, and operational execution of policies within the DoD. To do it properly, it requires senior officials with deep knowledge and experience with the many complex issues of international policy and the intelligence and integrity to make sound choices. It requires people who have observed first hand how complex DoD policies must be to properly address an increasingly complex and rapidly-moving set of issues across the globe. As in the field of athletics, it requires years of exposure to many different situations in order to ensure U.S. policy can be executed as well as possible. Analysts and leaders alike within OSD must be adept at anticipating future actions based on the smallest of clues visible across the world stage. They also had to be good enough at it for even the most demanding of hawks in the military side of the DoD to stand up and listen.

All that points to why in the past the OSD was a career choice which spanned multiple presidencies and different political parties in charge. It was rarely seen as an opportunistic role, taken for a few years and then used as a steppingstone to move on to some other enterprise.

Under Trump, much of that expertise is disappearing rapidly, drained in an atmosphere of constrained budgets for oversight, lack of respect by an increasingly-powerful military, and the presence of a Commander-in-Chief with no deep understanding or respect of history, foreign policy, the critical importance of America's traditional allies in NATO and the Far East, or even the U.S. Constitution and what it stands for. Without that oversight, the likelihood that the United States could stumble into global war is bigger than perhaps at any time in its history.

Just in the last year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense lost both Elbridge Colby and Sally Donnelly. Colby was co-developer of the National Defense Strategy, a plan regularly referred to as one of the most important guideposts for U.S. strategic planning. Sally Colby was senior advisor to Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Others lost more recently – in October -- include Robert Karem, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs, Alan Patterson, Assistant Secretary of Defense of African Affairs, and Thomas Goffus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy.

Besides these key roles, the OSD is also currently missing full-time people in the positions of chief management officer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, assistant deputy of defense for strategic plans and capabilities, and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The trend which created the decline in the civilian oversight positions goes back to when Obama was President. Then, under the Budget Control Act of 2011, a series of hiring freezes and successive budget cuts removed major portions of the current policy-making workforce. That has only become worse under Donald Trump’s even more severe cuts to funding in what he considers non-essential areas such as the OSD.

Under the Trump administration, others in OSD have left far more rapidly than normal for reasons besides just budget cuts alone.

A major cause is Trump’s quixotic approach to foreign policy, in which he regularly disses what experienced policy advisers see as critically important relationships with allies such as the EU and the NATO alliance more specifically, abandonment of agreements such as that with Iran and other nations to help keep Iran’s nuclear development in check, engagement in the Middle East which seems to draw more from securing headlines after airstrikes than anything more long-term in vision, and events like the bizarre theatrical summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un in Singapore several months ago.

Another reason stems from Trump’s ongoing denigration of civil service individuals in general. As Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, put it in a recent interview, people both in the Pentagon and the State Department have become “incredibly frustrated by hearing the president talk about the civil service as the deep state, as adversaries and enemies – as opposed to people who get up every day and try really, really hard to do their best for national security.”

It also does not help when Donald Trump regularly reminds the public about how much smarter he is on all this than all those policy experts who spent their lives learning their craft. Since they know the truth, that he has almost no understanding of the complexities of those policies and demonstrates it every day with his abusive treatment of American allies, it makes it hard to keep people on board.

Other causes cited for the near-term loss of key personnel in the area tie directly to the appointment of a micro-manager John Rood as the Pentagon’s top policy person. He has been described as a micro-manager who both drives people out and makes it even harder to attract people in.

Another major issue named by many as behind the rapid exit from OSD is the increasingly difficult relationship between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and OSD. Under the current administration, with civil services already disregarded by Trump himself, the Joint Chiefs regularly run all over OSD on key policy decisions. They often completely ignore the recommendations from that group, and there is no one more senior who pushes back to ensure what they know is listened to.

All this has created an atmosphere where the seasoned senior civilian policy wonks are now leaving the OSD in large numbers. It also has made it near-impossible to hire anyone of stature or substance to join the organization. With that happening, many of the positions which people might apply for are being filled by military people themselves. That deepens even further the danger that civilian oversight of the military which is so crucial to the proper functioning of American foreign policy will continue to degrade even further.

The loss of such civilian oversight extends not just into foreign policy but also as to how the U.S. military is listened to and used even within our national borders. Some of that has already been seen in the darkest ways as Trump deployed U.S. armed forces along the Mexico border as what now most see as a pure political move. It could get even worse as the military leaders take over control from and within the OSD, and the State Department continues, rudderless, to guide the “ship of state” forward.

Some warnings on this penned by former U.S. President James Madison, back when he was preparing comments for The Federalist papers before the June 1787 Constitutional Convention, ring perhaps as true now as when they did at the time:

“In times of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

Without the senior policy people in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to guide the military, “we the people” of the United States are in danger of seeing Madison’s words come true yet again.