Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I got some tea and it involves Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of defense.
President-elect Joe Biden announced his nominee for defense secretary would be retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III on Wednesday. The move would make the former U.S. Central Command leader the first Black secretary of defense. Biden would also be the second consecutive president to begin his tenure with the nomination of a retired military officer for the post. Biden’s announcement has bought up concerns among national security analysts and civil military relations scholars about retired generals running the Department of Defense.
Appointing a recently retired general like Austin as secretary of defense could undermine the principle of civilian control of the military as the Trump administration itself showed.
What makes the decision to appoint another retired general who also requires a congressional waiver somewhat surprising is that the 2020 Democratic Party platform explicitly aimed to “advance competent civilian control” of the military.
The president elect praised Austin’s decency and his career as a trailblazer, which includes becoming the first Black officer to command a division and corps of soldiers in combat and the first to oversee a theater of war.
“He is a true and tested soldier and leader,” Biden said Tuesday in an essay in the Atlantic explaining his decision. “I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot.”
Biden also was taken with Austin’s experience comforting grieving military families and his understanding of the human costs of war, said one person who was familiar with the decision, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
As a recently retired military officer, he will require additional votes in the House and Senate. He also will face questions about China, after spending most of his career focusing on other issues, and questions about past U.S. failures in the Middle East.
In picking Austin, Biden appears to have bypassed Michèle Flournoy and Jeh Johnson, civilians who served in senior Pentagon roles during the Obama administration and have lengthy records of government service. They, too, have children who joined the military, according to past public comments. But Biden and Austin have talked for years, including on Biden’s trips to Iraq as vice president. President Barack Obama entrusted the Iraq portfolio to Biden in 2009, as Austin served as the three star commander of 152,000 coalition troops there. Austin later advanced to become the top U.S. commander in Iraq as the United States withdrew its forces in 2011, the vice chief of staff of the Army, and the chief of U.S. Central Commander.
Austin will require a congressional waiver to overcome a law that states that no individual can become defense secretary within seven years of serving in the military. The restriction is designed to create separation between the civilian defense secretary and the generals they must oversee, and ensure that civilians are in charge of the Defense Department. Exceptions have been granted only twice to retired five star General George Marshall in 1950, and to retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis in 2017.
Austin also has a reputation for caution that is appealing to some and frustrating to others. As a senior officer, he was known for his detailed preparation, lack of engagement with the media and private nature.
Austin’s fellow generals emphasized his meticulousness and reluctance to share his thoughts even in private settings. One former general recalled meeting regularly with Austin for what were supposed to be informal sessions in which the two high ranking officers, both commanders in Iraq, could trade insights and test out ideas.
Austin also could face scrutiny for his ties to Raytheon, a major defense contractor. After retiring, he joined the company’s board of directors. Other defense secretary candidates have also had ties to the defense industry.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Austin grew up as one of six children in the rural southwestern Georgia town of Thomasville. He was accepted into University of Notre Dame but nudged by his father, a retired postal worker, into accepting an offer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he said during his retirement ceremony. Austin graduated in 1975, planning to serve five years and then go to law school, he later recalled. Instead, he worked his way up the ranks while earning master’s degrees in education and business, serving nearly 41 years. A man well over 6 feet tall, he earned a reputation for leading thoughtfully and without screaming, said Alex Brown Jr., a former Army sergeant who served in a battalion commanded by Austin at Fort Bragg, N.C., during the 90’s.
Austin became a one star assistant commander for maneuver of the 3rd Infantry Division, of Fort Stewart, Ga., two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and played a key role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The division participated in “Thunder Run” strikes on Baghdad, in which infantrymen and tanks launched rapid operations. The city fell quickly, and Austin received a Silver Star two steps down from the Medal of Honor in recognizing valor in combat for his actions. In 2008, Austin returned to Iraq as the commander of Multinational Corps Iraq as it was beginning to withdraw troops. He oversaw combined efforts with Iraqi forces to seize control of Basra and Sadr City from militants, and then returned for a stint on the staff of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was back in Iraq as the top U.S. commander in September 2010. Initially, he sought to keep a residual force of at least 24,000 soldiers in Iraq beyond 2011 to prevent any resurgence of what eventually would become the Islamic State.
As the United States attempts to counter the Islamic State, Austin faced criticism from lawmakers as a $500 million effort to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State failed. Senator John McCain (R.AZ), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told Austin that early efforts were an “abject failure” and that his testimony was “divorced from the reality of every outside expert.”
By the time Austin retired in spring 2016, the United States had rolled back major Islamic State gains in collaboration with Iraqi and Syrian forces.