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Biden will face uphill battle confirming retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as Pentagon chief

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·7 min read
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President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to take a page out of the Trump playbook and pick a recently retired general as his nominee for defense secretary has put him at odds with congressional Democrats.

Biden confirmed Tuesday in an article in the Atlantic that he has selected retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as the man he wants to run the Pentagon. “I chose Lloyd Austin as my nominee for secretary of defense because I know how he reacts under pressure, and I know that he will do whatever it takes to defend the American people,” Biden wrote.

Army General Lloyd Austin III, commander of the US Central Command, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee March 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images)
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 8, 2016. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images)

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would become the first Black defense secretary. But in passing over Michèle Flournoy, who was considered the favorite for the job, Biden missed the chance to give the Defense Department its first female secretary.

In order for Austin to be confirmed, the House and the Senate will have to vote to waive the law that prohibits former military officers from becoming defense secretary within seven years of leaving active duty. This would put Austin, who retired in 2016, in the same position in which President Trump’s first nominee for defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, found himself.

Mattis — and Trump — prevailed, but 17 Democratic senators and 150 Democratic representatives voted against granting the waiver in 2017. Those members of Congress, who include three current members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, will now be hard-pressed to explain their reasoning if they vote to grant a waiver for Austin.

One senator in a particularly difficult position will be the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who in voting to grant the waiver for Mattis stated flatly that he would not support any similar waiver in the future. Biden’s decision now puts that declaration to the test.

“No doubt it could put some people in an uncomfortable spot, especially those who made strong statements four years ago about how this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation for Mattis and we weren’t going to do it again,” said a staffer for a senator who sits on the Armed Services Committee. Reed’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), ranking member of Senate Armed Services Committee, speaks during a news conference on the Korean Peninsula October 16, 2017 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., in 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If the Democrats are successful in the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, Reed would become the committee chairman, a powerful position with which the White House would have to negotiate.

One Senate Armed Services Committee member to vote against granting a waiver for Mattis was Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. In a statement his office provided to Yahoo News, Blumenthal summed up the dilemma into which Biden’s decision to nominate Austin has forced him and other members of his party.

While lauding Austin’s “exemplary career in military service” and his status as a “trailblazer,” Blumenthal reiterated the stance he took four years ago. “Civilian control of a non-political military is a foundational principle, written into our Constitution, and absolutely essential to our democracy,” he said. “If a waiver for the rule that protects this principle is approved twice in four years, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, it starts to become a norm, not an exception. I have deep respect and admiration for General Austin, but I remain opposed to granting a waiver to anyone with significant, recent military experience serving in this post because it contravenes the constitutional principle that demands civilian control of our military.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was similarly conflicted in a tweet thread she posted Tuesday. Like Blumenthal, Slotkin said she had “deep respect” for Austin, with whom she had worked on multiple occasions in the Middle East during her previous career as a CIA analyst. “But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off,” she said.

Noting that the job of defense secretary is designed to ensure civilian control of the military, Slotkin said she would have to wait to see how Austin and Biden plan to address concerns about rebalancing civil-military relations before voting for the retired general’s waiver.

Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from, a Democrat from Michigan, speaks during a House Homeland Security Committee security hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Slotkin is far from alone in those concerns, according to a woman who has previously served in national security and defense positions in the U.S. government. “Every civil-military expert I know is astonished that the Biden team would select a retired general officer for the secretary of defense role at a point where politicization of the military is a crisis and the office of the secretary of defense, which is a huge component of civilian control, is so weak,” the former defense official said, adding that the country is “now less safe” as a result of this dynamic.

“I have to wonder, how is the Biden team unaware of these challenges?” she continued. “I haven’t seen them make any case that Austin is prepared to address them or that they have thought through the huge norm violation it is to put yet another general in this role.”

The fact that Biden’s decision to nominate Austin is a snub to Flournoy just makes the decision worse, according to the former defense official. “Qualified women are used to being passed over for jobs they’d excel at,” she said. “It’s tough to swallow that Michèle Flournoy was not only passed over but that the Biden team is willing to overlook a civil-military crisis and the intent of the Founders on civilian control in doing so.”

The Biden transition team did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Biden said in his Atlantic article that both he and Austin “respect and believe in the importance of civilian control of our military” and realize that “the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years.” Austin, according to Biden, “will work tirelessly to get it back on track.”

Flournoy’s endorsement Monday by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was another sign that Austin might face an upward climb on Capitol Hill. “I certainly communicated to the Biden people that I think Michèle Flournoy is hands down the best-qualified person for the job,” Smith told reporters.

Biden will now have to spend political capital in Congress — perhaps with a Republican-controlled Senate — in order to ensure that Austin receives a waiver and is confirmed. The staffer for a senator who sits on the Armed Services Committee said Biden must have good reason for doing so instead of selecting Flournoy or Jeh Johnson, a former Defense Department general counsel and homeland security secretary who would also be the first Black defense secretary.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks on November job numbers at the Queen theater December 4, 2020 Wilmington, Delaware. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Friday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Biden was widely reported to be under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and others to select a Black person as defense secretary. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., told CNN on Sunday that Austin and Johnson were two candidates the caucus was urging the president-elect to consider.

“He must have a very strong connection with Austin that he couldn’t make with Michèle or Jeh, to want to spend this extra political capital that he wouldn’t have had to spend with Johnson or Michèle,” the Senate staffer said.

If Austin receives the waiver and is confirmed, the Pentagon will be getting “an eyes-on, hands-off leader who inspires teams to become greater than the sum of their parts,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Burke Garrett, who was a chief of staff for Austin twice and also served for him as a brigade commander in combat. “Austin has the rare ability to broaden, deepen and shift our thinking in a well-aimed manner. This 3D thinking is essential as DOD faces current and future challenges.”

In addition, Garrett said in an email, “he knows the human cost of war better than most people.”

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