President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary says he’ll approach the job not as a retired Army four-star general, but as a civilian with military experience.
“I recognize that being a member of the president’s Cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in the uniform,” Lloyd Austin said Wednesday in his first public comments since his selection for SecDef was made public. “I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind.”
Biden is facing criticism, including some from within his own party, for selecting another recently retired general to lead the Pentagon. Law currently requires defense secretaries to be out of uniform for at least seven years to serve in the Pentagon’s top civilian leadership spot; Austin will require a waiver from Congress to take the role.
Austin retired from the Army in 2016, making him the second general in less than four years in need of a waiver. Congress granted one to Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary nominee, in 2017.
At least one lawmaker called Mattis’ waiver a once-in-a-lifetime exception. Now experts are warning that granting another one to Austin sends the wrong message on maintaining civilian control of the military.
But Biden hit back against his critics, saying Austin should be confirmed swiftly because he’s the right person for the job at a critical time in national security.
“I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military,” Biden said. “So does the secretary-designee Austin. He’ll be bolstered by a strong and empowered civilian sector and senior [officials] working [Defense Department] policies and to ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people.”
Biden said Austin’s experience overseeing large-scale logistics operations will be crucial as the military prepares to help distribute millions of COVID-19 vaccines in coming months. He also said the U.S. must work to rebuild relationships and engage partners, a dig at the Trump administration’s “America first” policy that left some allies wary.
Austin and Biden have professional ties dating back at least a decade. Biden’s son, Beau, who died of cancer in 2015, also served on Austin’s staff when deployed to Iraq. Beau Biden, was a member of the judge advocate general’s corps in the Delaware Army National Guard.
Austin said he expects to work with Biden under intense and high-pressure situations, as they have in the past.
“Sir, you can expect that as secretary of defense that I will give you the same direct and unvarnished counsel that I did back then,” Austin said, adding that he understands the role the Defense Department plays in maintaining stability and deterring aggression around the world.
“And I firmly believe that … America is strongest when it works with his allies,” he said.
But not everyone’s convinced another general should be approved. While lawmakers are praising Austin’s resume, some are indicating they won’t support another waiver for a newly retired general to serve as defense secretary.
That includes several Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois told MSNBC this week that she won’t vote for the waiver. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts told CNN, “I don’t think we ought to be doing these waivers.”
Austin’s command experience is also largely centered in the Middle East, where he commanded forces in Iraq and later, as head of U.S. Central Command, oversaw all U.S. military operations in the region. While threats there continue, the Defense Department is now focused on countering Russia and China in the years ahead.
Biden credited Austin with carrying out a strategy in the Middle East “to ultimately crush [the Islamic State group]” — a questionable claim, considering the fight against the terror group continues today.
“He did a heck of a job,” Biden said.
The threats the U.S. faces today will require not just a military approach, the president-elect added, but also one focused on diplomacy and revitalizing alliances. When leading forces in Iraq, Biden said he saw firsthand Austin’s ability to represent American interests abroad.
“I’ve sat with him with foreign leaders and I wondered whether or not he was in the State Department or from the Defense Department,” Biden said.
If confirmed, Austin will become the first-ever Black defense secretary. It’s past time, Biden added, for the defense secretary to represent the diversity in the ranks.
Austin credited Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black West Point graduate; the Tuskegee Airmen, the military’s first Black aviators; and the Montford Point Marines, the Corps’ first African American recruits, for paving the way for this moment.
“I am supremely grateful to all of them for their courage for their determination,” he said.
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