Last fall, senior civilian and military leaders in the U.S. Department of Defense agreed that Air Force Gene. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost and Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson should be the second and third women to head a combatant command, as reported by The New York Times. Then they made a mistake: They played politics and hit pause.
Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the Times that the two were the “best officers for the jobs.” By his own account, Esper played a key role in not advancing their selection package to the White House, as Esper feared that any general officer candidates who were not white men would be rejected by then-President Donald Trump.
His heart may have been in the right place, but ultimately Esper made the wrong choice to delay. In his decision to wait out the clock until Trump left office, he risked denying two combatant commands leadership from the best officers available, politicized general officer selection and promotions, and rationalized a decision to let personal characteristics drive the selection process — setting the Department of Defense down the path of another broken civil-military relations norm.
From the start of his time as defense secretary, Esper pledged to maintain the department’s tradition as an apolitical organization. That’s far from unusual; such comments were made by Secretary Jim Mattis and, more recently, by incoming Biden administration officials. There’s institutional momentum behind preserving distance from politics, though scholars such as Mara Karlin — now the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs — argue the military should not be apolitical.
But Esper’s decision to delay a meritocratic promotion until after an election so that a more favorable political party might come into office is inherently partisan and ultimately flies in the face of the chain of command. It was also a risk; there was no guarantee that former Vice President Joe Biden would win the election, and a re-elected Trump may have been even more secure in exerting his preference for appointments.
The president, as the commander in chief, has the right to select and fire senior military leaders. In his book “Supreme Command,” Eliot Cohen describes this as a mandated action for political leaders due to the political nature of war and the nature of military professionalism. Researcher Jim Golby has found that presidents of both parties are more likely to appoint officers with ideologies similar to their own when the president’s party controls the Senate. To widespread consternation, Trump demonstrated a willingness to exercise this prerogative specifically for political purposes by threatening to block the promotion of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
When asked about Vindman’s promotion, Esper recalled saying: “If he’s qualified for promotion, do the right thing, put him on the list. I endorse it. We’ll just let the chips fall where they might.” He further claimed that he “absolutely” would have resigned had Trump followed through with his threat to block Vindman’s promotion. This is the position he should have taken with Van Ovost and Richardson, holding the line against Trump determining their suitability by their gender.
It is quite plausible that Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley gave Van Orst and Richardson the best chance for successful selection based on the concerns cited by The New York Times. There are also those who point to the Trump administration’s civil-military relations as an outlier, lending some support to Esper’s decision to wait out that particular White House.
But those arguments do not cast a long enough view. The norm of not politicizing general officer appointments is there because there is no guarantee that future presidents wouldn’t have non-meritocratic preferences similar to that of Trump.
Unfortunately these arguments also undervalue a reality of not just the Trump administration, but broader American politics: Once a norm is broken, it is not easily restored. The waiver for Mattis to serve as secretary of defense within seven years of his retirement was described at the time as a one-time deal made under extraordinary circumstances. But when President Biden’s nominee for defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, required a similar waiver, Congress approved it by a supermajority, with members who described Mattis as a one-off casting their support behind Austin.
My concern is what comes next. Further politicization of appointments could lead to a Pentagon that games appointments in the fourth year of an administration or selects separate slates of general officers according to the anticipated preferences of the winning candidate. To that end, general officers may begin aligning themselves with anticipated preferences of the incoming party. As civil-military relations scholar Risa Brooks wrote that “when political criteria become paramount in appointments and promotions, it can undermine the quality of the officer corps.”
We are fortunate that the United States has a trusted, professional, apolitical military. An apolitical military, if you can keep it.
Jud Crane researches civil-military relations and recently served as the associate director of research for the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. He previously served as a political-military analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.