Gen. Lloyd Austin Biden’s SecDef Pick

Not another general.

POLITICO (“Biden picks retired general Lloyd Austin to run Pentagon“):

President-elect Joe Biden has selected Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of defense, according to three people with knowledge of the decision. If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black person to lead the Pentagon.

In picking Austin, Biden has chosen a barrier-breaking former four-star officer who was the first Black general to command an Army division in combat and the first to oversee an entire theater of operations. Austin’s announcement could come as soon as Tuesday morning, people familiar with the plans said Monday.

Austin, who also ran U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2016, emerged as a top-tier candidate in recent days after initially being viewed as a longshot for the job. Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s former Pentagon policy chief, was initially viewed as the frontrunner, but her name was notably absent from Biden’s rollout of key members of his national security team two weeks ago.

While Austin’s name has been floating for a few days now, I’m surprised by the pick. As I’ve written before, Flournoy would have been my choice among the candidates but it has become clear that, for whatever reason, she didn’t resonate with Biden. I was guessing that it would be Jeh Johnson but apparently there was pushback from Congress:

Biden had been under growing pressure to nominate a Black person to be his defense secretary in recent weeks. He chose Austin after also considering former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson for the job, several people familiar with the discussions said.

Lingering concerns about Johnson’s tenure in the Obama administration improved Austin’s standing among Congressional Black Caucus members in recent days, according to two people, including a House Democratic aide. Johnson has been criticized for his record on expanding family detention and accelerating deportations, as well as approving hundreds of drone strikes against suspected terrorists that killed civilians.

I’ve got a piece out for hopeful publication arguing that Congress should not grant Austin a waiver to the legal requirement that the Secretary be chosen “from civilian life” and be separated from uniformed service for at least seven years. Alas, despite their having said the exception for Mattis in 2017 was a one-time deal, I strongly suspect that they’ll cave.

By all accounts, Biden and Austin have a warm working relationship. And having the first Black man in the job would be, to quote he President-elect, a big effing deal. Still, there are too many qualified civilians for the job to go with a retired general yet again.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs, Race and Politics
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. Indeed, if the law stipulates a specific retirement period, and we are going to keep seeking waivers, it vitiates the law.

    I am no expert on Austin, and what I have read/heard suggests a strong resume for the position, but it is disappointing to be going down this waiver path again. And I philosophically prefer a civilian for the position as opposed to a retired general.

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  2. Michael Cain says:

    Second this all the way down the line. The military has more than enough inputs to the President. I want someone in the Cabinet whose job is to represent the perspective of the civilians on the subject.

    To be more completely honest, I’d also like to rename it the Department of Offense. It is far more likely in the next four years that the military will be used in small offensive actions on the other side of the world than that it will be deployed for defensive actions on our side.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Various reports out already that Dems in Congress aren’t warming to this nomination. It will be interesting to see if that turns into active opposition.

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  4. Kathy says:

    @Michael Cain:

    To be more completely honest, I’d also like to rename it the Department of Offense.

    We could just go back to the roots and re-rename it the War Department.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy:

    We could just go back to the roots and re-rename it the War Department.

    Historically, War Department was simply the civilian oversight for the Army. From 1794 onwards we also had a Navy Department, housing the Navy and Marine Corps. We separated the Army and Air Force out into departments of their own in 1947 and put them and the Navy Department under a Department of Defense in 1949.

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  6. Richard Gardner says:

    Adding to James’ comment on War Dept versus Navy, by the US Constitution there are significant differences primarily in funding between the two. Back in the 1790s ships took several years to build so the Navy is allowed to have a multi-year budget, vice the Army (and USAF) that are on a year-by-year basis – makes no sense today (Cliff Notes version – and Navy (+USMC) is not actually bound by Posse Commitas, but follow it). Regardless I’m leery of another General as SecDef. I’m likewise leery of a career SES in DOD in the position.

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  7. Rutt says:

    Thanks for sharing. It’s good article

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