Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general with deep experience in the Middle East, has been nominated to become the first Black secretary of defense, President-elect Joe Biden announced on Tuesday.
The selection of Austin, who has only been out of uniform for four years instead of the required seven, will require a waiver from Congress to bypass legal requirements for keeping the Pentagon under civilian control. That continues a pattern established by President Trump in 2017, when Trump selected Austin’s predecessor at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) for the position.
“Above all, I chose Lloyd Austin as my nominee for secretary of defense because I know how he reacts under pressure, and I know that he will do whatever it takes to defend the American people,” Biden said Tuesday.
Word of the announcement began to attract discomfort early Tuesday among Capitol Hill Democrats who questioned the need to grant a second extraordinary waiver in as many years, as well as from retired service members who feared a durable erosion of civilian control of the military. One Democratic aide on the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Daily Beast that the Biden transition team had not consulted with them on the waiver issue prior to his formal nomination. Politico reported that the team did notify a top House Democratic lawmaker about the pick but did not have a “fulsome” discussion. Several lawmakers subsequently went public with their concerns, in what stood out as one of the first open rebukes that Biden has received so far from members of his own party.
“Choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a former senior Pentagon official and one of the congressional Democrats’ most prominent national-security leaders, said in a statement Tuesday.
A Biden transition spokesman did not immediately return request for comment. But the aforementioned aide predicted that some Democratic senators would vote against granting a waiver but for final confirmation. Austin also has the strong backing of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), one of the political figures most responsible for Biden’s presidency.
Biden, in an op-ed in The Atlantic, urged Congress to grant Austin a waiver and swiftly confirm him, citing the “enormous logistics operation” facing the Pentagon for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Austin’s tenure in uniform is likely to prompt sharp questioning from the Senate. As the final commander of the 2003-11 occupation of Iraq, he favored a large residual force of 24,000 troops, something both the Obama administration and the Iraqi parliament considered untenable. Advocacy of a residual force could become a factor next year, as the U.S. is committed through a deal with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan entirely by May 2021.
When President Obama returned the U.S. to war in Iraq three years later, against the so-called Islamic State, Austin, now the CENTCOM commander, had to testify that a $500 million program to raise a Syrian Arab militia had yielded only “four or five” recruits, despite a Pentagon forecast of 5,000. As well, Austin’s estimates of ISIS’ troop strength varied widely.
But Biden praised Austin effusively as the architect of “the campaign that ultimately beat back ISIS, helping to build a coalition of partners and allies from more than 70 countries who worked together to overcome a common enemy.”
In an acknowledgement of the concerns around civilian control of the military that Austin’s nomination raises, Biden indicated that Austin will support “empowered civilians” at the Pentagon. He said Austin is willing to support having “diplomats and development experts to lead our foreign policy, using force only as our last resort.”
Austin is a less likely figure to run the Pentagon than one of the candidates he edged out, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. Flournoy had strong support from the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), as well as from many Pentagon and national-security veterans. Smith, who had urged his colleagues in 2017 to vote down a waiver for Mattis, indicated on Tuesday that Austin will testify before his committee, one of the reasons Smith cited for opposing the 2017 waiver.
“General Austin is a proven leader whom I respect a great deal, and who I am confident will make an excellent Secretary of Defense,” Smith said in a statement. “However, I am concerned about again appointing a recently retired General to be Secretary of Defense. Civilian control of the military is an important principle in our Constitution. General Austin should meet with the members of the House Armed Services Committee so they can ask questions about civilian control of the military, and to be assured that General Austin is committed to this important principle and understands what he will have to do to make sure it is upheld during his tenure as Secretary of Defense.”
Flournoy issued a statement on Tuesday expressing strong support for Austin, whom she called a colleague and a friend.
“I know he will bring his impressive skills to bear to lead all those who volunteer to defend our country, military and civilian, at this critical moment in our nation’s history. I look forward to helping him and the President-elect succeed in any way that I can,” Flournoy said.
Politico first reported Austin’s selection on Monday night.
The Biden transition did not comment for this story. As early as Thanksgiving week, two people familiar with Biden’s thinking told The Daily Beast they were vetting the retired general for the job.
Austin’s ties to the defense industry he will oversee are also likely to attract scrutiny in his confirmation hearings. He’s on the board of directors of Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors. And as The Daily Beast reported on Monday, Austin, along with Flournoy, is a “D.C. Partner” of a capital-investment firm that acquires defense-relevant companies, Pine Island Capital Partners. Last month, two progressive Democrats, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), urged Biden not to appoint a defense industry-tied secretary, painting such a person as part of “the mistaken nominations of the Trump era.”
—Erin Banco contributed reporting