Biden’s choice of Lloyd Austin for Defence Secretary faces hurdles

General Lloyd Austin (right) oversaw US forces in the Middle East under former president Barack Obama.
General Lloyd Austin (right) oversaw US forces in the Middle East under former president Barack Obama.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - 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 then President Barack Obama, would be the first African American secretary of defence.

He would require a Congressional waiver to be confirmed, however, 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. The President 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 Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley by his side.

General Milley later, in what was seen as a rebuke, 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.”

General 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 on Tuesday (Dec 8) 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 reported the choice of General Austin, though as of  Tuesday morning in Washington, the official announcement had not been made.

In nominating him, Mr Biden passed on Ms Michèle 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 frontrunner, 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, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, also an African American, seems to be out of the running as well.

General 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 CENTCOM commander, he was certainly a familiar figure for 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 weapons (including smart bombs) maker Raytheon, 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.