General Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, prepares to testify before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images
President-elect Joe Biden will appoint retired four-star General Lloyd J. Austin as Secretary of Defense, according to three people familiar with the decision. If the Senate approves it, Austin would be the Pentagon’s first black leader.
Biden selected Austin over longtime top candidate Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who would have been the first woman to serve as Secretary of Defense. Biden had also considered Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel and former home defense secretary.
Austin’s impending nomination was confirmed by three people with knowledge of the election, who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as the selection had not been officially announced.
As a career military officer, Austin, 67, is likely to face opposition from a number of congressmen and the defense company who believe in drawing a clear line between civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon. Although many former Secretary of Defense have served briefly in the military, only two – George C. Marshall and James Mattis – were career officers. Marshall also served as Secretary of State.
Like Mattis, Austin would have to be given a Congressional waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense. The laws should preserve the civil character of the Department of Defense.
Austin graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1975 and served in uniform for 41 years.
Biden has known Austin at least since the General’s years commanding U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq while Biden was Vice President. Austin was the commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq in Baghdad when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and returned to lead US forces from 2010 to 2011.
Austin also served as the Army’s first black Vice Chief of Staff in 2012, the service’s second-largest position. A year later he took over command of the US Central Command, where he designed and implemented a US military strategy for the repatriation of the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Austin retired from the Army in 2016, and he would need a Congressional waiver of the legal requirement that a former military member be out of uniform for at least seven years prior to serving as Secretary of Defense. This waiver was only granted twice – most recently in the case of Mattis, the retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.
Mattis’s tenure at the Pentagon is now seen by some as evidence why a recently retired military officer should rarely serve as Secretary of Defense. Although Mattis is still widely recognized for his military prowess and intellect, critics say he was more likely to surround himself with military officers at the expense of a broader civilian perspective. He resigned in December 2018 in protest against Trump’s policies.
Austin has a reputation for strong leadership, integrity, and a sharp intellect. He wouldn’t be a prototype defense minister, not only because of his 41-year military career, but also because he shied away from the public. It would be an understatement to say he was a calm general; Although he testified before Congress, he gave few interviews and preferred not to speak publicly about military operations.
When he spoke, Austin didn’t chop up any words. When Austin described in 2015 how the Islamic State Army had managed to sweep across the Syrian border a year earlier to take control of large parts of northern and western Iraq, the majority of Iraqi Sunnis simply refused to accept for their government fight.
“They allowed – and in some cases facilitated – ISIS’s advance across the country,” Austin said.
He received the Obama administration’s admiration for his work in Iraq and in the Central Command, despite not agreeing to Obama’s decision to withdraw completely from Iraq in December 2011.
Austin was involved in the Iraq war from start to finish. He served as deputy commander of 3rd Infantry Division during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and oversaw the withdrawal in 2011. When Austin retired in 2016, Obama praised his “character and competence,” as well as his judgment and leadership.
Like many retired generals, Austin served on the company’s boards of directors. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Raytheon Technologies.
Politico first reported on Biden’s pick from Austin.