- President-elect Joe Biden defended his choice of Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief in an Atlantic op-ed on Tuesday.
- Austin retired from the military less than seven years ago and would require a congressional waiver to become defense secretary.
- Some congressional Democrats are concerned that confirming Austin would run contrary to the norm of maintaining civilian control of the military.
- Austin is poised to be the US’s first Black defense secretary but he faces major hurdles en route to confirmation.
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President-elect Joe Biden in a new Atlantic op-ed on Tuesday explained and defended his choice of Lloyd Austin, a recently retired four-star general, for Secretary of Defense amid criticism from congressional lawmakers concerned about maintaining civilian control of the Pentagon.
Biden addressed the consternation in the op-ed, saying, “I respect and believe in the importance of civilian control of our military and in the importance of a strong civil-military working relationship at DoD-as does Austin.”
He added: “We need empowered civilians working with military leaders to shape DoD’s policies and ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people. Austin also knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years. He will work tirelessly to get it back on track.”
Austin would need a congressional waiver to become defense secretary due to a federal law that requires military officers to wait at least seven years after their retirement from active duty before serving in top Pentagon roles.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned from the Trump administration in 2018, received such a waiver from Congress in 2017. But 17 Senate Democrats voted against the waiver for Mattis in 2017. This includes four current members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would play a crucial role in Austin’s confirmation process: Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren.
Biden in his Tuesday op-ed urged Congress to grant Austin the same waiver.
“Lloyd Austin retired from military service more than four years ago. The law states that an officer must have left the service at least seven years before becoming secretary of defense. But I hope that Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin, just as Congress did for Secretary Jim Mattis,” Biden wrote.
“Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly,” the president-elect added.
Having a civilian in the top role at the Pentagon is part of a tradition considered to be a fundamental aspect of American democracy.
“The Founding Fathers believed that subordination of the military to the authority of civil masters was critically important in order to prevent the emergence of a new form of tyranny or dictatorship,” Kathleen J. McInnis, an international security analyst, said in a 2017 Congressional Research Service report.
This principle is at the heart of congressional pushback to Biden tapping Austin to be Pentagon chief.
“I have deep respect for Gen. Lloyd Austin. We worked together when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the Army, and when he was the CENTCOM commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off,” Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former acting assistant defense secretary, tweeted on Tuesday.
“The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military,” Slotkin added.
Blumenthal, who opposed the waiver for Mattis and has indicated he will do the same for Austin, expressed similar views.
The Connecticut Democrat said voting for the waiver for Austin would “contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” per the Associated Press.
If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary. Biden has made building a diverse Cabinet a top priority, which he underscored in his op-ed.
“The next secretary of defense will have to make sure that our armed forces reflect and promote the full diversity of our nation. Austin will bring to the job not only his personal experience, but the stories of the countless young people he has mentored,” Biden said.