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Biden’s Pentagon Nominee Faces Stiff Challenges

Biden’s choice of a Black secretary of defense is historic, but Lloyd Austin's defense industry ties and recent service put his nomination in question.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with General Lloyd Austin, the commander of United States Forces Iraq (USF-I) in Baghdad on a surprise visit on November 29, 2011.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with General Lloyd Austin, the commander of United States Forces Iraq (USF-I) in Baghdad on a surprise visit on November 29, 2011. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden names Lloyd Austin as nominee for secretary of defense, the White House hosts a vaccine summit, and Liberia goes to the polls.

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Biden Nominates Ex-General To Lead Pentagon

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden names Lloyd Austin as nominee for secretary of defense, the White House hosts a vaccine summit, and Liberia goes to the polls.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Biden Nominates Ex-General To Lead Pentagon

According to multiple news reports, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will name Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin as his secretary of defense. Although hurdles to his confirmation remain, the former Centcom commander would be the first Black person to lead the defense department in U.S. history, should his nomination gain Senate approval.

The choice of Austin edges out another potentially history-making choice in Michèle Flournoy. The former Pentagon policy chief had been considered the frontrunner for the position as soon as Biden’s victory was confirmed and would have been the first woman in the role. There is some speculation that Biden’s past policy differences with Flournoy were an obstacle, as FP’s Michael Hirsh wrote last month.

Although the nomination is historic, it comes with its own set of problems. Austin’s military career is so recent (he only retired in 2016) that he would need a congressional waiver in order to surmount a law barring military officers heading the Pentagon less than 7 years after they have left the service. Such a waiver has only been granted twice: In 1950 for Gen. George Marshall, who served as Army chief of staff during World War II, and in 2017, to elevate Ret. Gen. James Mattis.

The Raytheon problem. Another significant hurdle, especially from the point of view of the Democratic party’s progressive wing, is Austin’s post-military career. He has served on the board of directors of the weapons maker Raytheon ever since he left the military. The company has recently profited from arms sales to Saudi Arabia and stands to gain further from a $23 billion weapons deal with the United Arab Emirates, should it withstand congressional scrutiny.

Supporters of Flournoy will be quick to point out that her link to defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton was one of the reasons why progressives united to oppose her nomination. The antiwar group Codepink has since tweeted that it was now “coming for” Austin.

As my colleagues Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch report, the choice of Austin may be less about optics and more about relationships (or at least Biden’s long memory). Biden knows Austin from his time as vice president, when he handled the Iraq portfolio during the Obama administration. Austin then backed Biden’s plan to reduce troop numbers in Iraq while Flournoy and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen opposed it. His management of the Iraq troop drawdown could be useful as Americans tire of so-called forever wars.

A challenge to the civil-military divide. Writing in the New York Times, former Biden advisor Jim Golby advises strongly against the nomination of Austin. “Even if a retired general like Mr. Mattis was the right person for the Trump era, that era is over,” Golby writes. “A legislative exception granted at an exceptional moment should not become the new rule.”

Writing in Foreign Policy in 2018, Mara E. Karlin and Alice Hunt Friend argue that the “gap in civilian and military experiences in the United States over the 17 years since 9/11 has led to persuasive, persistent, and unrealistic myths that have eroded faith in civilian leadership of defense policy.” They call on U.S. society to “build better politics and politicians, not simply outsource nonmilitary roles to military professionals.”


What We’re Following Today

Vaccine summit. The White House hosts a “Vaccine Summit” today, an event largely seen as a means to pressure regulators into approving vaccines that have shown promising results according to internal data. Representatives from Moderna and Pfizer, the two companies whose vaccines have shown the most promise, will not be in attendance. The summit comes as a Food and Drug Administration committee meets on Thursday to evaluate Pfizer’s vaccine data ahead of possible emergency approval. On Monday the New York Times reported that the United States will have to wait to get more than the 50 million vaccine doses it has already ordered after it declined an offer to buy more over the summer.

Liberia votes. Voters go to the polls in Liberia today in midterm elections that could serve as an indicator of support for President George Weah and his Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC). The CDC faces competition from the Collaborating Political Parties coalition (CPP), opposition parties who have unified to oppose the Weah’s government. Voters will also cast their ballots in referendums on eight constitutional modifications, including on presidential term limits and the right to dual citizenship.

Ghana results. Ghanaians are awaiting the results of Monday’s presidential election in which incumbent President Nana Addo Akufo-Addo faced off against John Mahama, a former president, along with 10 other candidates. On Dec. 4, President Akufo-Addo promised to accept the verdict of the voters no matter the outcome and electoral authorities have predicted a result within 24 hours of polls closing. Writing in Foreign Policy on Dec. 3, Noble Kofi Nazzah explained why the former leader Jerry Rawlings, who died last month, still looms large over Ghanaian politics.


Keep an Eye On

Boris to Brussels. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will travel to Brussels to meet in-person with European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen in an attempt to salvage Brexit talks. It has not been confirmed when Johnson will make the journey, although Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Wednesday Dec. 9 is the expected deadline for negotiators.

Tightening the Belt (and Road). China has dramatically cut its overseas lending in two of its major development banks, in a sign of shifting priorities. Data compiled by Boston University researchers and reported in the Financial Times, shows lending from the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China plummeted from a high of $75 billion in 2016 to just $4 billion in 2019. Kevin Gallagher, the director of the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, says the drop may be due to the uncertainties caused by the U.S.-China trade war.

Sporting diplomacy. A member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family has bought a 50 percent stake in Israeli Premier League soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, a club known for its right-wing fanbase and as the only Israeli team never to sign an Arab player. (The team’s notoriously racist fan group La Familia—historically known for chanting “Death to Arabs” in the stands—also recently opposed the signing of a player named Ali Mohamed, until it emerged that Mohamed was actually a devout Christian.)

As part of the deal, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Nahyan plans to invest roughly $92 million into the club over the next ten years and his son will join the club’s board of directors. Co-owner Moshe Hogeg, said the new arrangement is an attempt to recast the club’s image. “Our message is that we are all equal,” Hogeg said. “We want to show to young kids that we are all equal and that we can work and do beautiful things together.”


Odds and Ends

The son of Farkhad Akhmedov, a Russian oligarch, has claimed to have lost $50 million pursuing “risky” trades while a student at the London School of Economics. The loss of the princely sum is the subject of the United Kingdom’s largest divorce case. Tatiana Akhmedova is suing her son Temur as she believes that he conspired to shield his father’s assets. Temur’s attorney, Robert Levy, tried to play down the apparent disappearance of the funds in a legal filing.

“That the sums were astronomical is nothing to the point,” Levy said. “Some of the extremely rich lavish their children with unimaginable sums. That is what Farkhad and Tatiana did during their marriage.”


That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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