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Biden officially announces he’s picked retired CENTCOM Gen. Lloyd Austin for defense secretary

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, then-commander of the U.S. Central Command testifies at a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, 2015. President-elect Joe Biden announced on Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020, that he will nominate now-retired Gen. Austin to be secretary of defense.

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By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 8, 2020

WASHINGTON — Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, a former commander for U.S. Central Command, will be nominated to serve as President-elect Joe Biden’s defense secretary, the incoming commander in chief announced Tuesday.

Austin, 67, would become the first Black Pentagon leader if he is confirmed by the Senate. But his nomination would require Congress to grant a rarely issued waiver of the requirement that defense secretaries be at least seven years removed from military service. Austin retired in 2016.

Biden’s transition team described Austin as “accomplished, respected, and trailblazing” in a statement announcing the retired general’s selection for the position Tuesday, less than one day after reports first broke that he was to be nominated. 

“Throughout his lifetime of dedicated service — and in the many hours we’ve spent together in the White House Situation Room and with our troops overseas — Gen. Austin has demonstrated exemplary leadership, character, and command,” Biden said in the statement. “He is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment, and I look forward to once again working closely with him as a trusted partner to lead our military with dignity and resolve, revitalize our alliances in the face of global threats, and ensure the safety and security of the American people.” 

Biden offered Austin the job on Sunday, The Associated Press reported Monday, citing unnamed sources. Biden told reporters Monday that he expected to make an official announcement about the defense secretary job on Friday.

Austin’s name only surfaced as a candidate last week, as former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy, long-expected to be Biden’s Pentagon pick, faced increased opposition from the Democratic Party’s left wing over her ties to the defense industry and hawkish positions on conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya during her time in former President Barack Obama’s administration.

As defense secretary, Austin would bring with him more than 40 years of experience in uniform. He worked closely with Biden when the president-elect was vice president and the Obama administration’s point person for Iraq, where Austin has extensive experience, including as the U.S. top commander there.

A U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., graduate in 1975, Austin commanded infantry units from platoons up and led soldiers in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a general, he commanded the 10th Mountain Division, the XVIII Airborne Corps and, in September 2010, Obama entrusted him with overseeing the U.S. pullout of some 50,000 troops from Iraq. Despite recommending against the full withdrawal, according to a 2016 Washington Post story, Austin led the efforts to leave Iraq by December 2011, and was one of the last American service members to exit that country, at that time.

Earlier in Iraq, Austin was honored for valor as a one-star, receiving a Silver Star — the nation’s third highest medal for battlefield heroics — for actions while leading 3rd Infantry Division troops in their charge toward Baghdad during the 2003 invasion. At the end of Austin’s career, after briefly serving as the Army vice chief of staff in 2012, he led CENTCOM, overseeing all U.S. military forces and operations throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

He was at the helm of CENTCOM as the Islamic State group emerged amid civil war in Syria and tore across the eastern portions of that country and into western and northern Iraq in 2014, capturing a mass of land roughly the size of the United Kingdom. He then oversaw the early portions of the U.S. military’s role in targeting ISIS, initially with airstrikes, and then as U.S. troops returned to Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces to fight the new terrorist threat. He also oversaw early American attempts to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. 

Austin has been retired from the military for less than five years, giving him an extra hurdle to overcome for confirmation as defense secretary. Like Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, Austin would need Congress to approve a waiver for him to serve as the Defense Department’s top civilian, because law requires retired officers wait seven years before assuming top civilian Pentagon jobs. 

That 1947 law was intended to ensure civilian control of the military. It has been granted only twice, with Mattis and George Marshall, a former five-star Army general who received one in 1950 to serve as defense secretary for former President Harry Truman during the Korean War.

Mattis, who like Austin retired from the military after leading CENTCOM, was easily granted the waiver and confirmed 98-1 by the Senate just hours after Trump was sworn into office Jan. 20, 2017.

It is not clear whether such a waiver would be as easily granted for Austin, as some members of Congress signaled during Mattis’ confirmation process they were unlikely to repeat that action. Among them, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said such a waiver should only be granted “once in a generation” and vowed not to support another.

Reed’s office declined to say Tuesday whether the senator would ultimately support Austin to lead the Pentagon. However, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the same committee, signaled he would support a waiver for Austin, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also a member the committee, said he would not support a waiver but had “deep respect and admiration for” Austin.

“I remain opposed to granting a waiver to anyone with significant, recent military experience serving in this post because it contravenes the constitutional principle that demands civilian control of our military,” Blumenthal said in a statement.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst and top Pentagon official under Obama, took to Twitter on Tuesday and wrote while she has “deep respect” for Austin, having another retired general in a civilian role “just feels off.”

“The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military,” she wrote. “That is why it requires a waiver from the House and Senate to put a recently retired military officer in the job.”

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general, said he plans to support a waiver for Austin to serve as the next Pentagon leader.

“It does not bother me to have a retired general be the secretary of defense. He is retired, so he’s now a civilian. It’s still civilian control of the military… I think Gen. Austin will bring 41 years of experience into the Pentagon. I think that’s very good,” Bacon said Tuesday on C-SPAN.

While Austin is a capable and respected former commander, a civilian should be next to lead the Pentagon, Jim Golby, a former special adviser to Biden as well as current Vice President Mike Pence, wrote in a The New York Times opinion piece Monday night.

Biden will want to have more civilian oversight and possibly a new vision for the defense budget, according to Golby, but having another retired general leading the Pentagon will not help return the department back to normal.

“Gen. Austin is a fine public servant, and he may well continue his service to the nation out of uniform. But the Pentagon would be the wrong place for him to do it,” he wrote.

Austin could face another hurdle on Capitol Hill, where in a high-profile September 2015 hearing he was sharply criticized by the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

McCain rebuked Austin for his testimony on the battle against ISIS, where the general announced American troops were making progress, while admitting after several months a $500 million program to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS had produced only “four or five” prepared fighters. 

"I have been a member of this committee for more than 30 years, and I have never heard testimony like this," McCain told Austin. “I have never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert and what you are saying.”

But Biden chose Austin amidst news reports that he was under pressure to name the first Black defense secretary, instead of his long-expected nominee Flournoy. She would have been the first female Pentagon leader.

Flournoy was rumored to be Hillary Clinton's choice for defense secretary had she won the presidency in 2016. But left-wing Democrats called on Biden to nominate a Pentagon leader who is not closely tied to the military industrial complex, perhaps derailing Flournoy’s chance at becoming the first female defense secretary.

Progressive Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., authored a letter on Nov. 10 to Biden urging him not to select a defense secretary who has worked for a defense contractor. Their letter did not name Flournoy or any individuals to whom they would object. Austin also has ties to the defense industry, serving as a board member since 2016 for Raytheon Technologies, the country's third largest defense contractor.

If confirmed, Austin will take the reins of a Pentagon already in a transition, following the post-election ouster of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper by President Donald Trump on Nov. 9. Esper, who was Trump’s second confirmed defense secretary, was fired via tweet. The outgoing president replaced him with the acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, a retired Army Special Forces officer and the third acting secretary during the last four years under Trump. 

Austin would come into the role just days after the United States is expected to have completed drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each of those nations, where the U.S. military’s future involvement is uncertain. Miller announced Nov. 17 that Trump had directed the pre-inauguration drawdowns, about one week after he stepped into the temporary role. 

The new defense secretary would also be faced with making quick decisions about the future of U.S. forces in those countries. Biden has signaled he intends to retain at least a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan.

Austin would also inherit a Pentagon that has spent recent years prioritizing competition — and potential military clashes — with power rivals China and Russia over the threats of international terrorism, its primary focus for some two decades.

He would be charged with overseeing modernization efforts underway meant to increase the U.S. military’s ability to deter potential conflict with those rivals, even as some Democrats have recently called for major budget reductions.

Stars and Stripes reporter Caitlin M. Kenney contributed to this report.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 
 

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, center, attended a change-of-command ceremony in Kabul on Wednesday, March 2, 2016, during which Gen. John W. ''Mick'' Nicholson, left, took over from Gen. John F. Campbell, right, as head of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
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