African American set to be Biden's choice for defence chief

Former general has solid military credentials but post-army career would come under scrutiny

Then US Vice-President Joe Biden with Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2009. If confirmed, General Austin, who as Central Command head ran military operations in the Middle East under president Barac
Then US Vice-President Joe Biden with Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2009. If confirmed, General Austin, who as Central Command head ran military operations in the Middle East under president Barack Obama, would be the first African American defence chief. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

US President-elect Joe Biden appears set to nominate former military general Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defence.

If confirmed, General Austin, who as Central Command (Centcom) head ran military operations in the Middle East under president Barack Obama, would be the first African American defence chief.

But he would require a Congressional waiver to be confirmed, as he has been retired for only four years. There is a mandated seven-year "cooling off" period before a former military officer can take the post, designed to ensure civilian control of the military.

This is a key issue. Such waivers have only been granted twice - in 1950 for General George Marshall, who was Army chief of staff during World War II; and in 2017, for retired General James Mattis.

President Donald Trump's tenure raised eyebrows over his relationship with the military. Mr Trump has alternately praised and disparaged generals.

Most famously, on June 1, police cleared protesters outside the White House with tear gas so that Mr Trump could have his photo taken holding up a Bible outside a church, with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, by his side.

Gen Milley later said: "I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Gen Austin certainly has solid military credentials. He was the first African American general officer to command a division and a corps in combat, and the first African American to command an entire theatre of war, in Iraq. He was also the first African American to serve as the vice-chief of staff of the army and Centcom.

But the question will be raised as to whether it is necessary to have a former general running the Department of Defence.

Foreign Policy yesterday quoted an unnamed former defence official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations as saying: "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?"

Several media outlets, quoting unnamed sources, had reported Mr Biden's choice of Gen Austin, though as of yesterday morning in Washington, the official announcement had not been made.

In nominating him, Mr Biden passed on Ms Michele Flournoy, who as a former deputy assistant secretary of defence in the Bill Clinton administration, and co-founder of the think-tank Centre for a New American Security, was considered a front runner, and would have been the first woman in the post.

She was, however, not particularly favoured by Democratic Party progressives who see her as a hawk - and also want more diversity in Mr Biden's team. The left wing of the party had concerns over Ms Flournoy's role in US military interventions in Libya and the Middle East, as well as her ties to the defence industry.

Codepink, the women's anti-war group, tweeted on Monday: "Victory! Tremendous gratitude to the over 2,500 individuals who took action and contacted the Senate to block Flournoy's appointment. Get ready, Gen Austin, we're coming for you."

A third contender for the post, former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, also an African American, seems to be out of the running as well.

Gen Austin has served in a range of elite units and was the 3rd Infantry Division's assistant division commander for manoeuvre during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As commander of Centcom, he was certainly a familiar figure to Mr Biden before retiring as a four-star general in 2016.

But his post-military career, in which he has been on the board of directors of Raytheon, maker of weapons (including smart bombs), will also undoubtedly come under scrutiny.

Raytheon has been profiting from arms sales to Saudi Arabia and reportedly could clinch a US$23 billion (S$30.7 billion) weapons deal with the United Arab Emirates if it is passed by Congress.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2020, with the headline African American set to be Biden's choice for defence chief. Subscribe