Biden to Name Former General as Defense Secretary
Lloyd Austin would be the first Black person to serve in the job.
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
President-elect Joe Biden is edging toward choosing retired U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as his defense secretary in a surprise pick that would mark the first time a Black person has been tapped to run the Pentagon, several people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
Austin appeared to gain a late edge in a three-way contest for the job with former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy—who was seen as the initial front-runner for the job—and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, another Black contender who was backed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Biden’s inclination to choose Austin was first reported by Politico on Monday. He told reporters earlier today that he intended to announce the pick on Friday.
Biden informed Austin of his choice on Sunday, according to a person familiar with the matter. One factor that tipped the scales in Austin’s favor was his relationship with the president-elect going back about a decade, the person said. As vice president, Biden got to know Austin during countless hours in the situation room, particularly when the general led Centcom.
Austin—who has been out of the military for less than five years—would need a waiver from Congress to serve in the role due to regulations protecting civilian control of the military, a move that has typically been considered extraordinary in U.S. history. Only two former generals before Austin have been granted such leeway: former U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, picked to lead the agency during the Truman administration, and James Mattis, whom President Donald Trump chose as his defense secretary four years after he stepped down as head of Centcom.
Flournoy, a favorite among many in the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, would have been the first female secretary of defense had Biden selected her for the post. While she was widely seen as the favored candidate for the job during the campaign, in recent weeks the Biden transition team has faced pushback from the left wing of the party. Progressive groups signaled opposition to Flournoy over her role in U.S. military interventions in Libya and the Middle East in prior government positions, as well as her ties to the defense industry once she left government.
Flournoy served on the board of directors of Booz Allen Hamilton and also co-founded the consulting firm WestExec Advisors. But Austin may not help the Biden team’s optics on that front either. He is currently on the board of directors at Raytheon—a major defense contractor and a leading manufacturer of smart bombs used in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Choosing Austin would also call into question Biden’s pledge of gender diversity in his cabinet. “For women in the field, who heard the president-elect promise to appoint a gender-balanced national security team, it’s a slap in the face,” a former defense official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations told Foreign Policy. “The Democratic field should be proud of the huge bench of diverse civilian leadership it can field at all levels. What made it necessary to turn to a retired general?”
“When I see a retired general who is statutorily ineligible for the role nominated for the most important job in national security, it is hard for me to feel like the natsec glass ceiling for women is anything but impossible,” the former defense official added.
Lawmakers and other Biden political allies have also pressured the president-elect to tap more people of color for top administration posts. Some members of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including its chair, Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, and other Democratic lawmakers pushed for Austin. But other members of the CBC endorsed Flournoy for the role.
Having Austin in the job would also raise concerns among some security experts who were already worried about the direction of civil-military relations at the Pentagon under Trump. When Mattis served as Trump’s defense secretary, some civilians felt cut out of key military and policy decisions. In the Democrats’ 2020 platform, the party promised to help fix the state of civil-military relations, which they saw as badly damaged under Trump. Several foreign-policy experts who advised Biden’s presidential campaign voiced disappointment that he had selected a former general for the job given this issue. “I just don’t see how tapping another retired general is acceptable,” one expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
But Biden enjoys a shared history with his defense pick that may have helped influence the decision. When Biden pushed to draw down troops from Iraq while vice president, Flournoy, then Pentagon policy chief, and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen opposed the idea. Austin did not.
A West Point graduate who served in elite Army units including the 82nd Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division, Austin worked his way up the ranks to the top echelons of the U.S. military during his four decades of service, retiring as a four-star general.
Austin served as the commander of U.S. Central Command overseeing all U.S. military operations in the Middle East from 2013 to 2016, including when the Islamic State first surged to power and took over large parts of Iraq and Syria. His management of that campaign drew some criticism, when he admitted in Congress in 2015 that a $500 million budget to train Syrian rebels had turned out only four or five fighters. But during that time, he also drew accolades for helping form and coordinate a global alliance, comprised of dozens of countries, against the Islamic State.
Austin, whose top postings were in the Middle East, would be tasked with leading a Pentagon that is now largely focused on strategic competition with China.
It’s not clear how Austin would hold up under congressional scrutiny. Numerous progressive foreign-policy experts said Congress should not grant a waiver for Austin or any other retired general or admiral. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, a Democrat, has previously said he would refuse another waiver for a recently retired military officer, and three Democrats who are still in the Senate previously voted against Mattis’s waiver and confirmation. But unlike several of Biden’s other cabinet picks, Austin did not draw immediate criticism from Senate Republicans, whose support during the confirmation process could be crucial if the GOP retains control of the Senate.
One progressive advocate who spoke to Foreign Policy said this would not necessarily be viewed as a win for the left wing of the party. “This is more about personal views Biden had about Flournoy, not being comfortable with her and not being able to turn to Jeh [Johnson],” the person said. “So that left him with Austin, who CBC was also lobbying for.”
But other progressives celebrated the decision. “Civilian control of the military is important. Austin’s record shows that he’s more likely to achieve the intent of that principle, as he is respected for keeping a low profile and following the direction of elected officials,” said Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy and a former congressional staffer.
“Progressives should prefer that to a longtime Pentagon official who promoted interventionism at every key moment in the past two decades and has opaque ties to defense contractors and foreign regimes,” he said, referring to Flournoy.
In a press call on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, said he had pushed the Biden team to strongly consider Flournoy as the pick.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer