The Oversight Gap: The Role of the Military in a Civilian Transition

November 8, 2016

No matter who wins tonight, one thing is certain: a presidential transition will soon begin. This transition will affect the Pentagon differently than any other government agency, because it alone will retain a very large portion of its most senior decision-makers into the next administration — the uniformed military leadership. During the coming months of massive turnover of the Pentagon’s civilian political leadership, the four-star members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their principal subordinates have a profound responsibility for upholding proper civil-military relations during the gap in the normal levels of civilian oversight of the Pentagon. They will serve as the primary continuity for America’s defense establishment during this quadrennial transition, yet are obligated to do so in ways that carefully preserve civilian control — and that avoid the temptation to advance their own bureaucratic agenda.

The continuity of the uniformed military during a change of administration generally serves the nation well and reinforces the non-political nature of the armed forces. Nearly every other agency will face a wholesale turnover of senior leaders and staff, and the incredibly lengthy political appointment and confirmation process means that many positions will remain vacant well into 2017. The Pentagon, by contrast, has a scaffolding of stability and expertise built in. The Joint Chiefs and their uniformed staffs bring a deep well of expertise on strategy and defense policy, mastery of arcane Pentagon processes and bureaucracy, as well as gravitas and experience to the most senior levels of a national security enterprise in transition.

In the world of Washington politics, however, this creates a major and perhaps unfair bureaucratic advantage. During the months it will take for the new civilian leadership team to take its place, the normal processes of civilian oversight of the military will be weaker than usual. Senior military leaders therefore have a quiet opportunity to take advantage of this “oversight gap” to try to lock in long-sought changes or build bureaucratic momentum for favored policies.

Doing so, however, does not represent the correct role of the military in a democracy. In the United States, oversight of the armed forces is accomplished by elected and appointed civilian leaders at all levels. Every presidential transition transfers that legitimate constitutional oversight of the military from one set of civilian leaders to another. A presidential transition is unequivocally not the time to convert frustrations with the last set of civilian leaders into policies designed to constrain their successors. Earlier this year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford wisely issued strong guidance to the force about remaining apolitical and staying out of electoral politics. Similar guidance now is equally warranted to reinforce the proper role of the U.S. military during the upcoming transition.

What should such guidance look like? Several “do’s and don’ts” can help the uniformed military leadership properly navigate the oversight gap.

Develop wide-ranging military options for the next administration’s national security leadership.

The Joint Staff can and should prepare for transition by looking at the full spectrum of security problems around the world and, for the most important ones, outline the broadest possible set of military alternatives for the new president and secretary of defense to consider. It should identify and anticipate key presidential-level decisions that may be required soon after the inauguration, such as: What’s next in Iraq after Mosul? Do we have the right military strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant? How should the United States respond to a sudden escalation in the South China Sea? Setting the president’s new national security team up for success in its first days and weeks should be a top priority for the Joint Chiefs and their staffs.

Strengthen civilian leader trust and confidence in the nation’s senior military leadership during the transition.

The comportment of the chairman and the service chiefs during the next few months will be carefully watched by those inside and outside the Pentagon for any signs of congressional lobbying, maneuvering for better military leverage inside the building, or even a whiff of anti-administration bias. Public speeches and statements by senior leaders will be scrutinized. Internal discussions among the chiefs and their staffs will be a topic of substantial interest to incoming civilian leaders in the Pentagon and the White House. The next administration must have full confidence in the unwavering support of senior military leaders as they arrive and set their own objectives, policies, and requirements for the force.

Engage the civil service in facilitating the transition.

Pentagon civil servants do not occupy senior positions of responsibility equivalent to the 3-star and 4-star senior military, but they serve as an important glue of continuity — especially at the mid-grade levels. Their long tenure extends far beyond the short Pentagon rotations of military officers at this level and usually stretches across multiple administrations. The uniformed military should seek out their advice and solicit lessons learned from past presidential transitions. This period also presents a unique opportunity to praise their professionalism and vital role in every nook and cranny of the Pentagon.

Don’t box in the next administration in speeches, testimony, or guidance to the force during the transition.

Senior military leaders must not take any actions that constrain the choices of the new civilian leadership team. In particular, the Joint Chiefs should not issue the new National Military Strategy before the end of the year, as is currently planned. Releasing this document before the new president and secretary of defense have determined their new priorities and objectives would put the military on a trajectory of its own design and foist a new military strategy on a new administration that played no part in developing it. That inherently undercuts the critical civilian oversight role and creates unnecessary friction between civilian and military senior leaders, which could undermine their ability to work together for the rest of the administration.

Don’t make substantive changes during the transition period.

From a civil-military standpoint, this is the right time to slow down, not speed up. Senior military leaders will inevitably grow frustrated with the length of time it takes to make decisions during the oversight gap, but they must nevertheless resist the temptation to make substantive changes. They should not enact new policies, change longstanding processes, or try to eliminate (often cumbersome) civilian oversight mechanisms during the transition.

Don’t assume the new team will continue the processes, policies, and strategies of the last four, eight, or even 12 years.

Regardless of party, the Pentagon’s new leaders may have a significantly different outlook on balancing the civilian and military leadership roles in the Pentagon. Even if they come from the same political party as the previous administration, the new team may substantially realign the current processes and responsibilities that have evolved between the uniformed military and the civilian leadership. They may, for example, look to a much stronger balancing role for the Office of the Secretary of Defense with the Joint Staff than has recently been the case. Alternatively, the chairman and the Joint Staff might take on an even more influential role, especially if paired with a less experienced civilian team.

A change in administration only happens once every four years, and it affects every corner of our government and democracy. At the Pentagon, it provides a clear opportunity for the uniformed military to exemplify the very best traditions of civilian control and reinforce its reputation as a force comprised of apolitical public servants committed to the highest professional standards. As we’ve written elsewhere, there are no generals or admirals associated with particular political parties or particular administrations. No president should feel upon entering office that he or she needs to “clean out” the former administration’s senior military leaders and start with his or her own choices. A strong and visible commitment by today’s senior military leaders to meticulously adhere to these principles during the upcoming oversight gap will help ensure that situation never arises.


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

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