Joe Biden’s nomination of General Lloyd Austin to be secretary of Defense is in big trouble. It’s not the qualifications of the retired four-star general that’s at issue. He served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan, being named commanding general in Iraq in 2010. He was also named the commander of CENTCOM in 2013.
Austin retired four years ago. And that’s a major problem. The law says that a secretary of defense has to have been retired from the military for seven years unless Congress waives that requirement. Congress waived it for Donald Trump when he named Jim Mattis to the post, but the opposition to Austin isn’t only the waiver. Austin was a board member for defense giant Raytheon and there’s a feeling that he’s too close to the so-called “military-industrial complex” to serve.
“I know this man. I know his respect for our Constitution. I know his respect for our system of government. So just as they did for Secretary Jim Mattis, I ask the Congress to grant a waiver for Lloyd Austin,” Biden said.
He also underscored the length of their relationship and personal trust in Austin.
“I have personally worked with this man. I have seen him lead American fighting forces on the field of battle. I have also watched him faithfully carry out the orders of the civilian leadership of this nation,” Biden said.
Opposition to giving Austin a waiver has already started to build. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she won’t support granting a waiver and several Democratic House members, who won’t be voting on the nomination but will vote on the waiver, are expressing their skepticism.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who as a member of the House will vote on whether to grant a waiver to Austin but not on his nomination, said she was wary of placing another retired general atop the Pentagon.
“After the last 4 years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced,” Slotkin, a former CIA analyst, wrote on Twitter. “Gen. Austin has had an incredible career––but I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.”
Austin, who is black, is being backed by the NAACP and other black groups. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first black person to become secretary of defense.
Austin said he would keep the importance of civilian control of the military “at the forefront of my mind” and would run a Pentagon “grounded in meaningful civilian oversight.”
“I come to this new role as a civilian leader — with military experience, to be sure — but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military,” he said.
Timothy Carney, writing in the Washington Examiner, sums up the worries over Austin.
He’s also a revolving-door businessman just barely out of the military. As such, he embodies two problems with our governance: the revolving door between industry and government and the subtle erosion of civilian control of the military.
Put another way: Dwight Eisenhower made famous the term “military-industrial complex.” Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin is that complex, and ideally, our defense secretary would have some distance from both.
Is Austin the best candidate to be secretary of defense? Almost certainly not. Is he the best that Biden could get? Defense secretary is one of the most thankless jobs in government and there are plenty of retired military people who would never serve in a Democratic administration. Austin may be Biden’s best choice — as long as he can get the waiver. Austin is going to have to hit a home run during his confirmation hearings to avoid the embarrassment of Biden pulling his nomination because he can’t get confirmed.