Joe Biden later this week is expected to name Lloyd Austin, who led the United States Central Command during Barack Obama’s second term, as his Pentagon chief. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin’s pick would make the retired four-star general the first Black secretary of defense. “General Austin is a southerner, has impeccable credentials given his military career and would be an outstanding secretary of the department,” Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Politico, which first reported the selection Monday.
Austin had been one of several candidates for the role under consideration: Michèle Flournoy, who was backed by Biden nominees Tony Blinken and Avril Haines, had until recently been seen as the leading contender for the post, which would have made her the first woman to be nominated to the top Defense post. But the CBC had lobbied Biden in recent weeks to choose a Black Pentagon chief, and Politico reported that the Biden team expanded its pool of candidates to include Jeh Johnson, the former Homeland Security secretary, and Austin, who had a strong relationship with Biden during their time working in the Obama administration together.
“Should President-elect Biden tap him for the job, Lloyd will make a superb secretary of defense,” former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen said in a statement Monday. “He knows firsthand the complex missions our men and women in uniform conduct around the world. He puts a premium on alliances and partnerships. He respects the need for robust and healthy civil-military relations. And he leads inclusively, calmly and confidently.”
Over the course of more than 40 years of military service, Austin has broken numerous barriers, including becoming the first African-American to lead CENTCOM. He is seen as widely respected in the military, and would bring broad experience to the role, including serving as the commanding general of the U.S. forces in Iraq, during which he oversaw the withdrawal of American military operations there. To some antiwar progressives, the selection may be preferable to Flournoy, who they had opposed as a warhawk. “Progressives should be encouraged that Austin was criticized from the right for his desire to avoid civilian casualties in his air campaign against ISIS,” Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, told the Washington Post. “Austin’s approach rightly tracked the reluctance of President Obama and other civilian officials to re-engage militarily in the Middle East.”
But there remain significant areas of concern among Democrats that could be real obstacles to his confirmation. Austin’s work for the military contractor Raytheon since his retirement has raised concern among some observers, and is likely to draw pushback from critics of the interventionist foreign policy establishment. A bigger stumbling block still is the fact that he has not been a civilian for the required seven years to serve as Defense secretary, meaning he’d need lawmakers to give him a waiver, as they did for James Mattis in 2017, when Donald Trump made a show of surrounding himself with “my generals,” as he called them. More than a dozen Democrats voted against Mattis’ waiver, and one, Kirsten Gillibrand, voted against his confirmation in the Senate. She and others, concerned about maintaining civilian control of the Pentagon, may not be keen on the idea of going from Trump’s generals to Biden’s. “General Austin is a capable and respected former commander of Central Command, but a civilian—not a recently retired general—should lead the Pentagon,” Jim Golby, who has served as a special adviser to Biden and Vice President Mike Pence, wrote in the New York Times Monday.
Whether wariness about waiving the seven-year requirement, or progressive concerns about aspects of his record, are enough to actually impede his path to confirmation remains to be seen. Biden’s transition team has already had “consultations” with lawmakers, who have suggested the waiver wouldn’t be a sure thing, Axios reported late Monday. As transition sources told the Times Monday, Biden himself had concerns in the past about the outsize role generals have played at the Pentagon in recent years. But Austin’s low profile may have convinced Biden that he is the “safe” choice, according to Politico. “They’ve known each other a long time,” a source told CNN. “There’s a comfort level.”
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