September 09, 2019

Two Cheers for Esper’s Plan to Reassert Civilian Control of the Pentagon

By Loren DeJonge Schulman, Alice Hunt Friend and Mara Karlin

The longest-ever gap in civilian leadership atop the Department of Defense came to an end on July 23, when Mark Esper was sworn in as secretary of defense. His presence in the chain of command, second to Trump, may seem enough to ensure civilian control of the Armed Forces. But the implementation of this American tenet is more complex. Civilian control is a process, not simply a person. And out of sight of most Americans, civilians are losing control over key processes that manage war plans, deployment decisions, and the programs that determine what kind of military the U.S. builds for the future.

Many see no problem with this tilt toward military management of the department. The U.S. military is one of the most-respected government institutions, its technical and operational expertise seemingly unrivaled. It can seem counterintuitive for civilians to manage key decisions of war planning, conflict, and building the future military. But even those who urge civilian deference to military expertise know strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s observation that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Statute, and history too, have determined that America is better served when politicians shape the nation’s approach to its defense, even though it is messy, difficult, and naturally infused with tension.

Read the full article in Defense One.

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