Washington: President-elect Joe Biden said Tuesday he plans to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin as defense secretary, a move that would make him the first Black leader of the U.S. military if he can assuage lawmakers’ concern about waiving a restriction designed to preserve civilian control of the Pentagon.
Biden praised Austin, who was the first Black general to command U.S. forces in the Middle East, as a “deeply experienced and highly decorated commander who has served with distinction in several of the Pentagon’s most crucial positions.”
“General Austin shares my profound belief that our nation is at its strongest when we lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” Biden said in a statement issued by his transition office.
To be eligible for the job, though, Austin would need a waiver from Congress of a law that bars military officers from leading the Defense Department within seven years of retiring. Austin retired in 2016. Some lawmakers already have said they don’t support the move, and others expressed concern.
Congress voted an exemption for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, to serve as President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary. It’s a move that lawmakers of both parties said at the time should be extremely rare to preserve the tradition of civilian control of the military.
On Tuesday, three of the 17 Senate Democrats who voted against a waiver for Mattis — who, ultimately, was easily confirmed — said they’d also oppose one for Austin.
“I have deep respect and admiration for General Austin, but 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,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
“I didn’t for Mattis, and I don’t think I will for him,” Senator Jon Tester of Montana told reporters, nonetheless predicting that Austin would make a great defense secretary.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who also serves on the Armed Services panel, told CNN that she has “great respect for General Austin” but “I opposed a waiver for General Mattis, and I will oppose a waiver for General Austin.”
Responding to such concerns, Biden said in an opinion piece Tuesday in The Atlantic that “I respect and believe in the importance of civilian control of our military and in the importance of a strong civil-military working relationship at DoD — as does Austin.”
Biden said “Austin also knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years. He will work tirelessly to get it back on track.”
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services panel, pledged in 2017 that he wouldn’t support another waiver after the one given Mattis. But he may be softening his position. He said Tuesday that the quality of the pick and the nominee’s vision should be the “decisive factor” even though his “preference would be for someone who’s not recently retired.”
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democratic member of the Senate panel, said “I intend to closely evaluate the implications for waiving the National Security Act Requirement twice in just four years.”
Austin, 67, was the head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016 under President Barack Obama, replacing Mattis in that key military role overseeing troops in a region including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
In the Atlantic article, Biden recounted a 2010 trip to Iraq where he saw Austin take command of United States Forces–Iraq. He lauded Austin for his work in bringing 150,000 troops home and said Austin has “met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency.”
Biden said the Iraq drawdown was the Army’s largest logistical feat in decades, and that the experience will help with distributing a coronavirus vaccine.
The House — which approved the waiver for Mattis over the objections of 150 Democrats and one Republican — would also have to approve a waiver for Austin. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement praising Austin for having “led with honor and served with dignity” but didn’t mention the dispute over permitting a waiver.
Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a member of that chamber’s Armed Services Committee, was cool to the idea Tuesday.
Slotkin said she had “deep respect” for Austin, but “the job of secretary of Defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military.”
“I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver,” she said.
Other congressional Democrats predicted Austin would have strong support, including Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a key Biden ally. Austin could win confirmation even if there are Democratic defections.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said he would support the waiver and opposes the seven-year rule altogether.
Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and Army veteran, praised Austin’s four decades of service but said on Fox News that “I, like many other senators, have real reservations about giving another waiver.”
“I can tell you that senators across the spectrum, from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, are opposed to doing that again,” Cotton said.
Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said granting a waiver for Austin would be a mistake as there are many other qualified candidates.
“It’s a mistake to think only people with experience in defense can be effective secretaries,” Schake said. “The political skills that make for effective cabinet secretaries are rarely possessed by military officers.”
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who specializes in the study of civil-military relations said he assumes the Biden team counted votes and are confident they can get the waiver.
Granting Austin a waiver “will require some leading Democrats to walk back statements they have made in the past and require some Republicans to resist the temptation to play mischief with a troubled nomination,” Feaver said in an email. “It is not hard to imagine ways they could run into trouble but, if I were to bet, I would bet Biden would prevail.”
Before Mattis, the only waiver Congress had granted was in 1950, allowing five-star Army General George Marshall to become Defense secretary for a year.
–With assistance from Erik Wasson, Laura Litvan, Billy House and Josh Wingrove.