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Why Biden’s Pentagon pick is causing so much controversy

The president-elect’s choice of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, who could be the first Black person to lead the Department of Defense, has caused quite a backlash.

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s defense secretary pick, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 9.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

He’s a historic pick, but not the only historic option available. He’s qualified, but not easily confirmable under federal law. And he’s experienced, but maybe not in the right way.

Those are the controversies swirling around President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin for defense secretary. Biden promised to form a more diverse Cabinet that “looks like America,” and if confirmed, Austin would be the first Black person to lead the Pentagon.

Announcing his choice in a Tuesday op-ed in the Atlantic, the future commander in chief said his time as vice president working alongside the retired four-star general on the fight against ISIS and on the 2011 US troop withdrawal from Iraq convinced him that Austin “is the person we need in this moment.”

But not everyone is convinced, meaning Austin’s path to the Pentagon isn’t guaranteed — which could prove a big, early blow to Biden’s plans.

Austin isn’t eligible to be secretary of defense under current federal law

Austin only left the Army in 2016, after a 41-year career. That’s a problem, as federal law requires anyone who served in the military to have been out of uniform for at least seven years before they can be eligible to run the Pentagon as secretary of defense.

Congress has issued waivers to that law twice — confirming George Marshall in 1950 and James Mattis in 2017 — and Biden is asking Congress to do so again for Austin.

“There’s a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect. I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe that this moment in our history didn’t call for it,” Biden said on Wednesday in an event introducing Austin as his selection. ”Just as they did for Jim Mattis, I ask the Congress to grant a waiver.”

But that prospect has some experts concerned about the erosion of an important democratic norm: civilian control of the military.

Experts say the statute is on the books to ensure the Defense Department remains a civilian-run agency. While Austin is a civilian now, the worry is he — or others recently retired or separated from the military — is naturally stuck in thinking like a soldier after over 40 years in uniform. Plus, having recent flag officers associated with one party or another threatens to politicize the military, an outcome modern democracies seek to avoid.

“This move risks opening the door to fully politicizing norms dividing the military from civilian politics,” said Jim Golby, a retired Army officer now at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those were norms Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, promised to uphold after voting to approve Mattis as Pentagon chief in 2017. “I will not support a waiver for future nominees. Nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future,” he said.

But now Reed has backtracked, likely in an effort not to anger Biden and not to be seen as tanking the first Black defense secretary’s chances. “I feel, in all fairness, you have to give the opportunity to the nominee to explain himself or herself,” he told reporters on Tuesday. That helps Austin’s chances, especially since Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the committee chair, already supported Biden’s pick.

Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a hearing on May 7, 2020.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Others, such as House Armed Services Committee member Ro Khanna (D-CA), simply think Austin’s qualifications — as well as his race — justify such a waiver. Khanna, who voted against Mattis’s waiver, told me it would be “hypocritical” for Congress to give a waiver to Mattis but not Austin.

Asked whether it was hypocritical to have opposed issuing such a waiver under a Republican administration and support one now, he responded: “That’s a view if you believe race doesn’t matter ... My view is we’ve never had an African American lead the Defense Department.”

When I asked if he’d vote against the waiver if Austin were white, he said: “I think it would be a closer call. I think it has to be a consideration, it’s a factor, and it should be a factor.”

Austin’s time at Central Command courted controversy

The general’s recent military service isn’t just an issue because of that federal law, though.

Austin led US Central Command, from 2013 to 2016, and during that time he helped oversee the campaign against ISIS. Many, including his critics, credit him for creating the strategy that eventually led to the military defeat of the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

Former Army Secretary John McHugh told me “it’d be hard to make a finer pick,” and former US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey labeled his former colleague “a consummate military professional.”

But some who worked with Austin when he led US Central Command — the organization that oversees US military operations in the Middle East — are more critical of his performance. “Things were really bad,” said Kris Alexander, a retired lieutenant colonel who served with Austin at CENTCOM. “You hate to denigrate the guy, he was a good combat leader. But you really don’t know who’s ready for that Combatant Command-level until they get there.”

Austin and his team faced allegations from CENTCOM intelligence officials that they sought slanted analysis to make ISIS seem weaker than it was and American efforts more effective than they were at the time. A 2017 Pentagon investigation eventually cleared Austin and others of wrongdoing, but those who were there at the time believe their boss’ insular style of leadership led to those perceptions.

“He had his inner circle and he had a contentious relationship with his intelligence folks,” said Alexander. “It was just obvious to everybody that things weren’t going well. Generals and colonels were arguing in meetings.” For Alexander and his colleagues, watching Austin hand over command in 2016 “was the first time many of us saw him at headquarters.”

Lloyd Austin, then a four-star general and US Central Command chief, ahead of a Pentagon briefing in 2014.
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

That kind of behavior has some worried about how Austin might lead the Pentagon, a much bigger organization than Central Command.

Austin’s military career may not match the moment

Some Republicans and Democrats are also questioning whether Austin’s experience leading America’s wars in the Middle East is what’s needed in a world where the Pentagon now views China as the nation’s biggest threat.

“There are real questions as to that experience being helpful for the 2020s,” a Senate Democratic aide told me.

Austin spent a lot of time fighting wars in the Middle East against insurgents and terrorists. Few in the US have such experience, and it make him incredibly valuable when discussing that kind of conflict.

The problem is Biden wants to wind down the “forever wars” and the Pentagon wants to focus its attention on “great power conflict,” particularly against China. Such a fight would almost certainly require greater knowledge of naval and aerial warfare instead of Austin’s expertise in on-the-ground soldiering. It’s for those reasons that Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican and former Marine, recently said Austin is “not the pick if you believe China is an urgent threat.”

The Global Times, a state-run Chinese propaganda outlet, is already claiming that Biden’s pick is a signal to calm down tensions with Beijing. “Picking Austin as the new secretary of defense signals that the US will to some extent ease tensions with China,” a Wednesday editorial read. “We might see the US adjust its entire overseas military strategy.”

Minimizing the chance for war with China is a good thing, not a bad thing. But importantly, Biden didn’t once mention the word “China” in his Tuesday op-ed, garnering criticism from some experts that he wasn’t taking the issue seriously.

It’d be great in moments like these to know what Biden and Austin think on that important issue. The problem is that few know exactly what Austin believes on it — or anything, really.

Austin has been labeled “an invisible general” for consistently shunning the limelight and the press. He rarely gives his views on key issues in public, and those who know him say he barely speaks his mind in private.

“It’s not clear what Austin’s priorities would be,” a recent NPR story noted.

One thing he has been clear on is not wanting to significantly reduce the number of US troops abroad. “I believe we should be doing all we can to preserve our current forward presence to the greatest extent possible rather than cede ground and regional partnerships,” he told the US Army in a 2018 interview. “Presence buys you influence, which is built on trust; you can’t surge trust.”

Still, a general lack of understanding of Austin’s views bothers even the Senate aide. We have to “make sure [he believes] we’re not fighting the wars of 10 or 20 years ago,” the staffer told me, and instead cares about others threats like China and climate change.

After he spent over 40 years in uniform, his confirmation hearings will be among the few times much of the nation will get to hear what Austin thinks. And if he says enough of the right things, he’ll likely be leading Biden’s Pentagon next year.

Then-Gen. Lloyd Austin during an October 17, 2014, Pentagon briefing on the fight against ISIS.
Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Most expect he will — but he’s had disastrous performances in front of Congress before.

In September 2015, Austin testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that only “four or five” of the 54 US-trained rebels in Syria were still on the ground fighting ISIS. By that point, $42 million had been spent on the $500 million training program that had begun that April.

Austin also said he wouldn’t support a no-fly zone or buffer zone in Syria to help refugees escape, prompting ire from then-committee chair John McCain who said he’d “never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert and what you are saying.” Others, like Khanna, applauded Austin’s decision not to further involve the US military in that conflict or aim to influence policy, which civilians are supposed to be in charge of.

Alexander remembers watching that event with fellow aides. “We watched his utter collapse,” he told me. “We’re all just sitting there agog, like, ‘Holy shit, this is bad.’”

As part of the confirmation process, Austin will get another shot in front of Congress. It’ll be up to him to make spectators say “holy shit” again — but in a good way.