President-elect Joe Biden is nominating retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as the incoming Defense Secretary. If confirmed by the Senate, the four-star general will be the first black Secretary of Defense.
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The retired general already set records during his Army tenure. He was the first Black general to command an Army division in combat. He also became the first African American that oversaw an entire theater of operations. Biden’s formal announcement regarding the post of Defense Secretary will come out as early as Tuesday.
Team Player and Soldier’s Soldier
Austin was a former Army Vice Chief of Staff. He also headed the Central Command, the military unit that operates in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. He is known as a low profile guy who prefers working behind the scenes. As a leader, he leads by example and is a consensus-taker. Ret. General Dana Pittard, a two-star general who served under Austin, said “He won’t grandstand the president. He’s not a guy who likes the limelight. He’s a team player.” Pittard recalled Austin once successfully convinced Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers to work together to retake a dam in Mosul. “He worked his magic,” Pittard said. “He has gravitas and commands respect.” In addition, Pittard noted that “He served as a role model for so many of us. All officers looked up to him.”
Described as a soldier’s soldier, Austin started from the bottom at West Point. He commanded infantry units after graduation, then rose to senior commands in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the 3rd Infantry Division and 10th Mountain Division. Also, Austin is a highly decorated soldier, owning a Silver Star, the country’s third-highest valor award.
Like his predecessor James Mathis (as well as General George C. Marshall), Austin will require a congressional waiver before assuming the position. He lacks the required minimum of seven years of retirement before taking a secretary post. Granting a waiver is an unusual task. A previous Defense Secretary under Trump, retired Marine General James Mattis, received one in 2017.
Prior to Mattis securing a waiver, some Democrats questioned the need to appoint a military man to a civilian position. Matthis served as Defense Secretary until December 2018. Biden’s transition team remains confident will grant another waiver, and that Austin will receive the needed support.
Among the Top Three Nominees
Apart from Austin, Biden also considered two other nominees for the post. First was Michèle Flournoy, a top Pentagon official during the Obama administration. House Armed Forces Committee chairman Rep Adam Smith (D) preferred Flournoy. He endorsed Flournoy due to her experience in Pentagon operations. However, critics Specifically, critics pointed out a potential conflict of interest. She was a board member of Booz Allen Hamilton, a Pentagon contractor during the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, Jeh Johnson is a former Homeland Security secretary and onetime Pentagon general counsel. However, he received criticism during his DHS sting. During his time, he helped expand family detention and accelerated deportations. He also approved hundreds of drone strikes against suspected terrorists that killed civilians.
Compared to both Flournoy and Johnson, Austin became a safer choice. His meticulous and careful approach to U.S. force deployment, plus his experience in managing the US forces’ withdrawal in 2011 from Iraq stood out.
In addition, Austin received the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African-American members of the US Congress. This year, the CBC consists entirely of Democratic Party members. Representative Bennie Thompson of Missouri said that “General Austin is a southerner, has impeccable credentials given his military career, and would be an outstanding secretary for the department.” Biden reportedly picked Austin because he fared well in crisis situations. Also, being highly respected in the military helped him secure the nod.
Back in the Game Early
After retiring in 2016 after 41 years in service, Austin joined a number of boards. Among them is Raytheon Technologies, a major Pentagon contractor. Officials with ties to the industry may pose some problems, as illustrated by Flournoy’s chances. Plus, being four years retired might be too early to hold the reins. At this point, Austin might still be too familiar with his friends in the military.
Watch the CBS 17 news reporting on President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement nominating retired General Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense:
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