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The Biden team sees retired general Lloyd Austin as the safe choice. File photo: AFP

Joe Biden picks retired general Lloyd Austin to run Pentagon

  • Lloyd Austin will be the first African American US secretary of defence
  • Served as top US commander in Iraq, rose to head US Central Command
Joe Biden

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Lara Seligman, Tyler Pager, Connor O’Brien and Natasha Bertrand on on December 7, 2020.

Retired general Lloyd Austin, once viewed as a long shot candidate to be US President-elect Joe Biden’s defence secretary, has been chosen to lead the Pentagon, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.

The decision comes two weeks after Biden announced the other senior members of his national security team. Although Michele Flournoy, who was widely seen as Hillary Clinton’s choice to be defence secretary had she won the election in 2016, was initially viewed as the front runner for the job, Biden has been under growing pressure to nominate a black person to be his defence secretary.

In recent days, Austin, the former commander of US Central Command, had emerged as a top-tier candidate, although Biden also considered former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson for the job, several people familiar with the discussions said.

Two people including a House Democratic aide said lingering concerns about Johnson’s tenure in the Obama administration had improved Austin’s standing among caucus members. Johnson has been criticised for his record on expanding family detention and accelerating deportations, as well as approving hundreds of drone strikes targeting civilians.

Congressman Bennie Thompson, a CBC member who is close to Biden, told POLITICO that “if either were selected, I would be happy”.

“A lot of people are anxiously awaiting to see what the Cabinet looks like once it’s completed, but also note the fact that the African American numbers need to be better than what they are at this point.”

The Biden team saw Austin as the safe choice, said one former defence official close to the transition, adding that the retired general is believed to be a good soldier who would carry out the president-elect’s agenda.


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“There would be less tension” with Austin as defence secretary instead of Johnson or Flournoy, the person said. “Maybe less disagreement … the relationship would be smoother.”

Austin declined to comment through a spokesperson. A spokesperson for the Biden transition team also declined to comment.

Austin’s candidacy has been met with resistance from some national security experts, who noted that he has not been out of the military for the required seven years and would need a waiver from Congress to become secretary of defence. If chosen, he would be the second Pentagon chief in just four years to require such a waiver, after President Donald Trump chose James Mattis, another former Central Command chief, for his first defence secretary in 2017.

“From a civil-military relations perspective, this seems like a terrible idea,” tweeted Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University professor and former Pentagon official who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a woman to be chosen as defence secretary. “Lots of damage during the Trump era. Especially after Mattis, Kelly, McMaster, Flynn … putting a recently retired 4 star, no matter how wonderful, into the top civilian DOD position sends the worst possible message.”

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Austin’s nomination could run into trouble on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both parties may be wary of granting yet another exception for a retired general to lead the Pentagon. The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, vowed to oppose future waivers for the post after Mattis’ confirmation, arguing that Congress should make the exception “no more than once in a generation”.

Another knock against Austin is that he doesn’t have the same star power as Mattis or the other four-star officers of that period. “He just doesn’t knock your socks off,” said the former defence official close to the transition. “I just don’t see him as an independent thinker.”

CBC Chair, Congresswoman Karen Bass on Sunday told CNN that her caucus was backing both Austin and Johnson for defence secretary, noting that a special CBC task force has been meeting weekly with the Biden-Harris transition team.

Lloyd Austin, then commanding general of US forces in Iraq, with US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta in a helicopter over Baghdad in 2011. File photo: AFP

But the position wasn’t unanimous among the CBC members.

Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland, the only CBC member on the Armed Services Committee, and Congressman Marc Veasey of Texas backed Flournoy in a letter to Biden last week.

The pair praised her experience in the Clinton and Obama administrations, which they said is needed to retrain the military on matching gains by China and reorienting US counterterrorism policies for a new era, and praised Flournoy as “a tireless advocate for diversity and inclusion in national security”.

And on Monday, House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith came out in support of Flournoy.

“I’ve certainly communicated to the Biden people that I think Michele Flournoy is hands down the best qualified person for the job. That does not mean that she’s the only person who can do the job … but I think Michele Flournoy is uniquely qualified.”

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Austin has had a career of firsts. He was the first black general to command a US Army division in combat and the first to oversee an entire theatre of operations. In 2013, President Barack Obama named him to run Central Command, responsible for all US military operations in the Middle East, where he oversaw operations against Islamic State when it took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Before his appointment to Central Command, Austin served as the top US commander in Iraq, where he played a role in the surge of forces that began in 2007 and was in charge of the withdrawal of US combat forces in 2011. He was also the first black vice chief of staff of the US Army, the service’s second ranking officer.

Austin earned a reputation for avoiding the limelight and rarely took part in public events such as press conferences or think tank discussions.

He faced particularly tough questions in 2015 about the US military’s role training forces in Syria to fight Islamic State during the country’s civil war, acknowledging that the US spent some US$500 million but trained only a handful of fighters.

Another cloud hanging over the command at the time was allegations that Central Command played down intelligence reports on the threat posed by the terrorist group and painted a brighter picture of the progress of US military efforts.

Austin’s command was cleared in an investigation by the Defence Department’s inspector general in 2017.

He retired after 41 years in 2016 and joined the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, one of the largest Pentagon contractors. He is also on the board of Nucor, the largest American steel producer, as well as health care company Tenet. He is a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation.

Public records show that he has his own consulting firm, Austin Strategy Group, LLC in Great Falls, Virginia.

Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

Read Politico’s story.