Lloyd Austin Isn’t Who You Think He Is
The “silent general” has never been very quiet on policy. That’s exactly why Biden picked him as defense secretary—and why Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is wary.
It was in 2010, when General Lloyd Austin was head of U.S. Forces in Iraq, that he got to know then-Vice President Biden. Austin had already become friendly with Biden’s son Beau (they regularly attended Catholic services together in Iraq, where Beau Biden was also deployed, according to the Washington Post), but it was his unflappability in person that most impressed the vice president, according to a senior Pentagon official with contacts in the Biden transition team.
Ten years later, those encounters in Iraq were one factor in president-elect Biden’s decision to select Austin as his secretary of defense. Austin has powerful Biden allies and political supporters, including retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who retains the president-elect’s admiration despite the embarrassing critiques McChrystal’s staff made of Biden back in 2010. (McChrystal did not respond to the author’s invitation to comment on his relationship with Austin.) But most crucially, it’s clear that Biden and Austin share common beliefs, including a healthy skepticism about America’s serial Middle East interventions, a deep-seated belief in the efficacy of diplomacy, and a nearly instinctive commitment to rebuilding U.S. alliances. These are the foreign-policy ideas that helped secure the White House for Biden—but have not always been as popular with the military as with the American public.
Austin’s commitment to these themes is a testimony to the equanimity Biden first noticed in him in Iraq—and which was prominently reflected in a notorious disaster that could have curtailed Austin’s career before it started. On the afternoon of March 23, 1994, an F-16 Fighting Falcon collided with a C-130 Hercules troop transport over Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. The C-130 was able to land safely, but the F-16 barreled into the parking ramp of Pope’s east-west runway, where two battalions—about 500 soldiers—of the 82nd Airborne Division were lined up on the airfield’s “green ramp” in preparation for a training mission. The resulting carnage was horrific: 23 paratroopers of the two battalions were killed, and more than 80 were injured. Many of the injured suffered life-threatening burns, and one died the following year. The commander of one of the battalions was then-Lt. Col. Stanley McChrystal; the commander of the other was then-Lt. Col. Lloyd Austin.
The “green ramp disaster” was a searing experience for both McChrystal and Austin, who had attended West Point together—McChrystal graduated in 1976, Austin the year before—but had never been particularly close. In the tragedy’s aftermath, both commanders received high marks for reshaping units scarred by the disaster, but Austin’s work stood out, marking him for higher command. Forged by the tragedy, McChrystal and Austin followed dissimilar but parallel tracks to high command—with McChrystal’s meteoric rise resulting in a five-year stint at the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (and a controversial, all-too-public stint as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan), while Austin’s more prosaic arc resulted in steady if unspectacular promotions until he became assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It was during the 3rd Infantry Division’s assault on Baghdad, in April 2003, that Austin made his reputation. With the division poised outside of Baghdad, Austin greenlit the 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s sprint into Baghdad. “Austin was the brains behind the assault on Baghdad,” a senior military commander told me several years ago. “He was always pushing. Pushing, pushing, pushing. He was one of the finest combat commanders I’ve ever seen.” The assault was a spectacular success, and the high command noticed. In the war’s aftermath, Austin received a now-celebrated Officer Evaluation Report written by then-Lt. Gen. Dan Kelly McNeill, one of the Army’s most respected, if under-the-radar, senior commanders. The McNeill report kicked Austin into the Army’s stratosphere—where he served as command general of U.S. Forces-Iraq, Army vice chief of staff, and then head of U.S. Central Command.
While Austin remained predictably silent about the Obama administration’s 2008 surge of troops into Afghanistan, his doubts about implementing a counterinsurgency strategy (aimed at wresting control of Afghanistan from the hands of the Taliban) was well known among his fellow officers. Austin, his colleagues argue, believed the United States should adopt a more targeted counterterrorism strategy—aimed at disrupting and defeating al Qaeda. Biden, as it turns out, made the same argument to President Barack Obama.
Austin was also a private, though outspoken, critic of how Obama shaped the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq, in 2014, when Austin was the head of the U.S. Central Command. Austin stewed when Obama appointed retired Marine Gen. John Allen as the administration’s special envoy to the coalition, preferring that the president appoint a veteran diplomat. Austin complained to aides that Allen’s appointment would lead to confusion about who was leading the anti-Islamic State effort. Austin wasn’t alone in his criticism, which extended to Allen’s former service. “John Allen is a great guy,” retired U.S. Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni told one reporter, “but does it take a retired general to coordinate a coalition? What is Centcom, chopped liver?” Austin was so angered by Allen’s appointment that when Allen requested that Centcom provide him with air transport to the region, Austin’s staff turned him down—which would not have happened without Austin’s approval. Since he now worked for the State Department, Allen was told, he should check with them.
The incidents provide a counternarrative to what has been written about Biden’s “quiet,” “low-key,” and “introverted” secretary of defense-designate. That is all true: Austin is known in military circles as “the silent general,” a description that is often followed by one other description: that his reticence masks a deep competence—an ability to capably manage large organizations, like the Defense Department. “There are very few people I can think of who are more competent than Lloyd Austin,” retired U.S. Army Col. David Johnson, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp., said. “And if there’s one thing we need in a secretary of defense, it’s competence.” Then too, and for those who know him, the now-retired four-star general might be self-effacing in public, but he’s less reticent than is generally portrayed. It’s not that he doesn’t have opinions, it’s that “he just doesn’t like talking to reporters,” as one of his colleagues said. Nor do Austin’s reputed command failures stand up to scrutiny. Austin is criticized for failing to predict the rise of the Islamic State and for failing to anticipate Saudi Arabia’s March 2015 intervention in Yemen. “That’s all bullshit,” a senior retired Army officer who worked with Austin in Iraq told me. “Why blame Austin? No one saw ISIS coming and no one predicted what the Saudis would do. In both cases, this was a J-2 [military intelligence] failure. If you know anything about the military that’s not exactly shocking.”
What’s crucial is what Austin did in the aftermath of these failures, particularly after the Saudi intervention in Yemen. “Lloyd was enraged by the Saudi intervention,” a senior officer who worked with Austin at Centcom said, “because we [the Americans] were quietly supporting the Houthi fight against AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] at the time.” Austin was so angered by the Saudi move, this now-retired officer said, that he considered formally requesting that the Obama administration denounce the intervention. “We waved him off of that,” the officer with whom I spoke at the time said. But Austin also predicted the troubles the Saudis would face and made his views known to senior civilians at the Pentagon. “He thought the Saudis would lose in Yemen and that, before it was all over, we would have to bail them out,” this same officer noted. Austin was right on both counts: The Saudis found themselves mired in Yemen and dependent on U.S. intelligence assets in their fight.
As crucially, the Saudi intervention marked the first time that Austin would cross swords with then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who slammed the military for its failure to fully support the Saudi effort. The reason the Saudis didn’t notify Centcom of their plans ahead of time, McCain said, was because “they believe we are siding with Iran.” The rebuke didn’t sit well with senior U.S. officers at Centcom or at the U.S. Special Operations Command, who had been quietly supporting the anti-AQAP effort. And it didn’t sit well with Lloyd Austin. A senior commander who served with Austin said that McCain purposely “blindsided” Austin in order to make the Obama White House look bad. Siding with Iran? McCain, this officer suggested, knew better: “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans,” the officer told me at the time, “is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think—that it was a bad idea.”
Austin sparred publicly with McCain several months after the Saudi intervention when the Arizona senator slammed him for his lack of enthusiasm for a more intensive intervention against the Islamic State in Syria. “Lloyd just sat there and took it,” the senior officer told me last week, “and I have to say, I thought he looked bad. But after the confrontation Austin’s reputation grew. He could have told McCain to stuff it, that he was following the direction of the commander in chief. But he didn’t do it, and that was the right thing to do. He took one for the team.” Austin’s willingness to take one for the team impressed Obama, and it impressed Biden. But it was not only this willingness that impressed the now president-elect. As crucially, Biden was attracted to Austin’s oft-stated belief in “strategic patience,” a phrase that Austin has regularly used in implying his skepticism of those who think the United States should take a harder line on foreign competitors—and particularly on China.
And that, it appears, is the rub.
For while Biden has been criticized for appointing yet another retired general to head up the Pentagon, there’s a growing suspicion that the opposition to Austin isn’t because official Washington is worried his tenure will replicate James Mattis’s notorious military mafia, or that he won’t speak his mind when dealing with a new president, or even that his presence at the top of the U.S. chain of command will wreak havoc on civilian-military relations. The real problem with Lloyd Austin is that he’s not seen as sufficiently willing to take on China, the enemy du jour among a host of Washington policymakers, many of whom would prefer the appointment of someone who reflects their own interventionist credentials, like Michèle Flournoy. Indeed, the roster of anti-Austin and pro-Austin voices largely fall neatly into two categories: those who repeat the China-is-a-threat mantra and those who don’t.
For Washington’s China-is-a-threat crowd, the appointment of Lloyd Austin looms as a counterpoint to their foreign-policy agenda: one of larger defense budgets, less reliance on diplomacy, and a greater willingness to use force—all reasons why Biden appointed Austin in the first place.