Biden Defends Choice of Austin for Defense Secretary

Some lawmakers and many national security experts are wary of another general atop the Pentagon, but Lloyd Austin has the president-elect’s ear—and backing.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be secretary of the Department of Defense by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on Dec. 9. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden used his introduction of Secretary of Defense-designate Lloyd Austin to defend the retired Army general’s record on civil-military relations, after the pick was met with a storm of skepticism on Capitol Hill and in the national security community over increasing challenges to civilian control of the armed forces. 

If confirmed by Congress, Austin, who enjoyed strong ties with then-Vice President Biden during the Obama administration, would mark the second recently retired general in the past four years to become defense secretary. He would also be the first Black person to hold the job. Other top contenders for the role were Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Pentagon’s policy chief under President Barack Obama, and Jeh Johnson, the first Black person to head up the Department of Homeland Security.

Biden urged the Senate to waive a legal requirement that calls for officers to wait seven years after retirement to serve as Pentagon chief, invoking the extraordinary challenges awaiting the new administration on Inauguration Day—especially the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine.

“There’s a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect. I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin to ask for it,” Biden said. “I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military. So does the Secretary-designate Austin.” 

Though Biden has championed the historic nature of the pick and Austin’s logistical acumen, some see personal ties dictating the move. Biden’s late son Beau also served under Austin in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard, and Austin was seen as a team player.

“[Austin] wasn’t getting great decisions on whether we were going to leave a follow-on force,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as Austin’s deputy during the U.S. drawdown. There was nothing coming back from Washington, D.C., on that, and he worked with that. He didn’t say, ‘Woe is me,’ and those tough days endeared him to [Vice President] Biden.” 

Spoehr said that the then-general enjoyed a strong partnership with civilians on the ground, such as then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey, and looped in State Department personnel at meetings on even the smallest military issues, such as the sequencing of convoys out of Iraq. 

Yet in spite of the pledges to uphold civilian leadership at the Pentagon, Wednesday’s rollout saw Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris repeatedly refer to Austin as “Gen. Austin.” That’s the same title President Donald Trump used with former Defense Secretary James Mattis, and it is a frequent complaint of civilian officials who have seen an increasing blurring of lines between military and civilian leadership. Austin succeeded Mattis as the head of U.S. Central Command in 2013.

“As a commander, chain of command means people must follow your direction,” one former defense official who served in Mattis’s Pentagon said. “But the Pentagon is a consensus-driven organization—almost a completely different animal—which is why people called it ‘Pentacom’ during Mattis’s time. He ran it like a [combatant command] and it created a lot of churn.”

Mattis, who civilians said cut career officials out of major conversations while working closely with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, also brought in a team that was familiar to him at Centcom, including his chief of staff, Kevin Sweeney. And like Austin, Mattis’s formative years were spent in the Middle East—a theater the United States is trying to exit—but not as much in the Pacific, where the rise of China now presents the major strategic challenge.

“Not only were they only loyal to Mattis but they only had experiences in the Middle East,” the former official said. “So when we started sending up memos [that said] we need to do a [Freedom of Navigation Operation], it took him six months to get comfortable with making the decision.” 

The pick could be uncomfortable for many of Biden’s team and Senate Democrats. In 2017, Kathleen Hicks, a former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration who now heads up Biden’s Pentagon transition effort, testified in favor of granting Mattis a waiver to serve as defense secretary, but she expressed hope that the exemption would be a rare generational case, not a new norm. Though some Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, have backed off of previous threats not to support another waiver, another Democratic member of the panel, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, told reporters this week he would not vote for a waiver to allow Austin to serve as defense secretary. Former officials said the selection could further future political considerations for senior military selections, undermining the apolitical nature of the military.

Still, despite internal skepticism about the waiver, former officials expect Biden’s team to eventually fall in line with the planned nomination.

“No one is going to sit around and get in a pissing contest,” said Jim Townsend, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO from 2009 to 2017. “We’re all here to help the secretary of defense.” 

While Biden has championed Austin’s logistical aptitude in aiding the 2011 pullout from Iraq, the retired four-star would bring relatively little expertise on China, seen by the Pentagon as the top U.S. national security threat. Biden’s recent article defending Austin in the Atlantic made no mention of Beijing, sparking criticism from architects of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which shifted the focus of U.S. efforts to great-power contests like that with China.

Austin has also faced criticism for his management of the fight to defeat the Islamic State after U.S. forces redeployed in 2014. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter recalled that Austin’s plan to retake the caliphate’s capital of Mosul was “entirely unrealistic” and relied on Iraqi units “that barely existed on paper, let alone in reality.” He was also the target of scrutiny from the late Sen. John McCain at a 2015 hearing when he admitted that a $500 million effort to train and equip Syrian opposition forces had yielded just four or five fighters.

Correction, Dec. 14, 2020: Kathleen Hicks testified in favor of granting James Mattis a waiver to serve as secretary of defense. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Hicks testified against granting Mattis a waiver. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch