President-elect Joe Biden has chosen retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to be secretary of defense, two sources familiar with the decision told me — making him the first Black person and the third retired military officer ever nominated for the post.
Austin’s nomination comes as a bit of a surprise. For months, the expectation was that Michèle Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official, would be Biden’s nominee, making her the first woman to head the Defense Department. But she faced resistance in recent days from some progressive groups unsettled by her past support for the war in Afghanistan and ties to the defense industry; at the same time, members of the Congressional Black Caucus began pushing Biden to select a Black defense secretary.
That helped paved the way for Austin to get the nod, especially as Biden seeks to form a more diverse Cabinet that “looks like America.”
There’s no doubting Austin’s military credentials. Starting his Army career in 1975 as a second lieutenant, he rose to become a four-star general and the commander of US Central Command — the US military organization overseeing operations in the Middle East — in 2013. It was in that role that he gained notoriety for being “an invisible general” who shunned the limelight and the press as he helped lead the US military fight against ISIS.
He sometimes garnered attention for the wrong reasons. In September 2015, Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that only “four or five” of the 54 US-trained rebels in Syria were still on the ground fighting the terrorist group. By that point, $42 million had been spent on the $500 million training program that had begun that April.
Upon his retirement in 2016, though, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter called Austin “a soldier’s soldier,” and then-President Barack Obama stated that he’d “relied on his wise judgment and steadfast leadership.”
Confirming Austin won’t be a straightforward process, though. Like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Austin will require a congressional waiver to become the defense secretary, as current law doesn’t allow the role to be filled by someone who has served in uniform on active duty in the past seven years. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in 2018 that he’d oppose approving a waiver ever again.
Further, Austin is a board director at Raytheon Technologies, a major US defense contractor — a position that is sure to roil some progressives.
Still, with this nomination, Biden has placed the “invisible general” in the spotlight — and it remains to be seen how he does in it.