Biden Considering Lloyd Austin for SECDEF?

Yet another retired general in the post would be a bad idea.

Yesterday, rumors began to fly that President-Elect Joe Biden was thinking of nominating a recently-retired general to head the Pentagon. Now, Axios‘ Hans Nichols and Jonathan Swan report that Lloyd Austin is has made the shortlist.

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Those are four very different candidates!

 Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden’s comfort level — have come into play.

If experience is the key factor, Flournoy would seem the obvious candidate, although Johnson comes close and has actually run a large department already. Duckworth falls well short of either in terms of experience. We’ll get to Austin later.

My suspicion is that “Biden’s comfort level” is the real key here. He’s a back-slapping Senator to his core and it makes sense that he wants his top officials to be people with whom he has a relationship. One would think Johnson, who served in the Obama administration, comes closer to filling that bill than Austin, who Biden presumably only met a handful of times.

And, yes, race simply has to be a consideration for a whole variety of reasons.

Biden’s top advisers feel pressure to announce an African American to a prominent Cabinet role. Earlier this week, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a top ally, said he was disappointed more African Americans had not been included in Biden’s early selections.

Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense in American history.

The former head of U.S. Central Command, Austin retired from the Army in 2016. He would need a congressional waiver to serve, just as President Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, required as a recent military retiree.

Many of us were concerned when Mattis was nominated. The balance of power in the Pentagon has long since tipped toward the brass, with the Joint Chiefs and their staff dominating decision-making against an overmatched Office of the Secretary of Defense. Putting yet another recently-retired general in charge just doubles down on the perception that defense policy should be left to the generals.

One can certainly understand the desire to chose a Black man for the job. As powerful a message as the first woman Secretary of Defense would send, we’re arguably more past due for a Black Secretary. Blacks have served in combat roles and died in our wars since literally the Revolution.

Further, Austin makes no sense whatsoever in this context:

The Biden team wants to elevate diplomacy and de-emphasize the military as an instrument of national power.

“So having DoD rollout front-and-center sends one message,” said a source close to Biden. “Not doing so sends another message. There has always been the intent to signal from Day One that this is not an administration that is going to put the Pentagon at the center of things.”

How does putting a military man in the role send this message?

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jim Brown 32 says:

    This is a head scratcher considering he was basically fired by the Obama team for underselling the intelligence estimates for how dangerous ISIS really was. Have also been in a couple of rooms with him and, dont get me wrong, hes pretty good…but I would not put him in the same class as CQ Brown as sn exceptional General Officer.

    Duckworth should be the pick IMHO

    Make a black man head of HUD and a black women AG and call it a day.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jim Brown 32: A number of folks are looking for Marcia Fudge as AG secretary. How much of that is her putting her face front and center for it and how much is the work she’s done on the AG committee, I don’t know.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I think he’s proposing a Black Attorney General, not Agriculture Secretary. The latter is an important post but not super high-profile.

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: If you mean Jim Brown, yes, that is what he is saying. I am just saying that there are folks who want Fudge as AG secretary, and it shouldn’t be discounted.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: My kingdom for an edit function. Wanted to add that she is very much pushing for it.

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  6. I concur: no generals, please.

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  7. Raoul says:

    Not picking generals just for the sake of not picking generals alone sounds like a simpleton idea. The most important element is the person him or herself. Being a general may be a positive or a negative (I think a positive) but it is just a factor. To be better informed, which I’m not, I would like to see what else these individuals bring in.

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  8. Andy says:

    The balance of power in the Pentagon has long since tipped toward the brass, with the Joint Chiefs and their staff dominating decision-making against an overmatched Office of the Secretary of Defense.

    I’m honestly very skeptical of that claim. The militarization of foreign policy has much less to do with the “brass” than it does with 25 years of civilian leadership that’s favored policies that only the military can execute.

    And your argument comes with the assumption that a general will inherently support a more military-centric foreign policy than a civilian leader. But I don’t think that’s a safe assumption – again given the reality of the last 25 years. We’ve certainly had plenty of hawks as SECDEF and the assumption that any retired general will be hawkish or more hawkish than a civilian leader is contradicted by the historical evidence.

    So having DoD rollout front-and-center sends one message,” said a source close to Biden. “Not doing so sends another message. There has always been the intent to signal from Day One that this is not an administration that is going to put the Pentagon at the center of things.” How does putting a military man in the role send this message?

    And, I’m less concerned about what “message” it sends since what really matters is how effectively any pick leads the department and what actual advice they will give President Biden.

    It’s not clear to me how, exactly, putting Austin in that position would do more to make the Pentagon “the center of things” than Flournoy. What evidence is there that Austin as the pick would make the Pentagon more central to US foreign policy than Flournoy, especially considering her reputation as a progressive hawk?

    Finally, the idea that an entire category of potential picks – generals – ought to be eliminated from contention seems really bizarre to me.

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  9. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Raoul: I agree. Frankly, a General Officer, particularly one whose been a Combatant Commander working directly for SECDEF has the most translatable experience to the job.

    There are 2 types of SECDEFs, beans and bullet resource appropriation types (eg Ash Carter) and the types that understand strategic operations (like a Chuck Hagel or Mattis).

    The world is in flux as the old order reconfigures. We’d better have a person in place that understands more that just how to settle resource delimas so the National Defensive Strategy can be addressed. Sure, Austin took the fall about ISIS but we had the wrong type of SECDEF in place to smell bullshit and dig deeper.

    This is the calculus Biden needs to make a hire the best person willing to take the job. I dont care if it was a General, a Private, or a hairdresser.

    If we move the wrong way within this new environment we are going to enable some very dark forces increased influence in key areas of the world. We need a chess player not a bean counter at this inflection point

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  10. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: Id certainly agree. Most Retired Generals would probably lean to less hawkish because they understand military operations the standpoint of planning and resources attached to outcomes in a way non-military civilian bureaucrats do not.

    At any rate, the thing that mostly matters… is if the POTUS is a Hawk or not. Thats who calls the shot for Military interventions. SECDEF provides recommendations but ultimately is the one responsible for the plan that lays out how the achieve what the President decides to do

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  11. @Andy:

    Finally, the idea that an entire category of potential picks – generals – ought to be eliminated from contention seems really bizarre to me.

    The performance of generals under the Trump administration should underscore part of the problem: they are self-censoring in ways that can be problematic. Holding a political appointment while being unwilling to engage in certain kinds of political behavior is a self-limitation that I am not sure serves the nation.

    If being a former general means you cannot call out, even in retirement, the bad behavior of an administration because you fear being overly political as a military man, that’s a problem.

    I also think at DoD in particular, it is useful to have true civilian control in place, both via POTUS but also SecDef.

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  12. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My point is that retired generals (or military officers generally) should not be excluded from consideration merely because they are retired officers. I do agree, however, that there should be a preference for leaders who are not retired generals – all else being equal. But the main reasons for that have to do with combating insular thinking in the Department as well as potential favoritism in promotions, which are the reasons the 7-year title 10 restriction is in place and why it requires a special law passed to override it. But those same problems are not limited to retired officers and insularity is a problem in national security generally.

    If being a former general means you cannot call out, even in retirement, the bad behavior of an administration because you fear being overly political as a military man, that’s a problem.

    Retired senior military officers should have a strong bias against such conduct. It’s one of the tenets of good civil-military relations and is a long-standing norm of conduct that we should want to preserve. Not least because “bad behavior” is both subjective and highly political. I’m strongly against breaking or weakening that norm.

    I also think at DoD in particular, it is useful to have true civilian control in place, both via POTUS but also SecDef.

    Can you please define what is and isn’t a “true” civilian – that is a characterization I’ve never heard before.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @Andy: @Jim Brown 32: When Congress created the post in 1947, they explicitly specified that the appointee come “from civilian life” and be ten years removed from active duty. They made a one-time exception for George Marshall and another for Jim Mattis. The concern isn’t so much that a retired general or admiral is more of a warmonger (the evidence is decidedly mixed) but that they’re too tied up in the thinking of the brass, that they at best merely replicate with the serving military brass bring to the table, and a host of other concerns.

    Further, as @Steven L. Taylor notes, they tend to try to have it both ways, choosing the cloak of the officer when it’s convenient and the civilian when it’s not. Mattis was always “General Mattis.” Even after his resignation, he more-or-less refused to directly criticize Trump because it would be seen as coming from “General Mattis,” not “Secretary Mattis.”

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  14. Nick Stryker says:

    @Jim Brown 32: People vote from where they stand. That’s one important reason no one person, tribe, or group should ever be given too much power. Arrogance, insularity, and lack of accountability are enough reasons to pass on former generals heading government departments.

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