President-elect Joe Biden has chosen retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III to be secretary of defense, and it is not a good choice—so much so that it’s possible the Senate, including some Democrats, won’t confirm him.
The main point against Austin is that, as a rule, it is a bad idea to make any retired general the secretary of defense, a job expressly created for a civilian. The principle of civilian control over the military is so ingrained in America’s political culture that federal law bars officers from becoming defense secretary within seven years of their retirement from the armed forces, unless Congress passes a waiver allowing the exception. Austin retired from the Army not quite five years ago. Congress has approved a waiver just twice since 1947, when the job was created: for retired Gen. George Marshall in 1950 and for retired Gen. Jim Mattis in 2017. Marshall had been Army chief of staff during World War II, then secretary of state shortly after, and so had a broad view of force and diplomacy; Mattis was seen as a stabilizing force to the erratic, ignorant Donald Trump.
But Austin evokes his own causes for doubt. True, he would make history worth celebrating as the first Black secretary of defense. He was also a fine, venerated battlefield commander in Iraq and an able operations chief on the Joint Staff (the staff that works for the Joint Chiefs). But he had lapses as the head of Central Command, the vast, multiservice entity that runs U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, during Barack Obama’s second term. Allotted $500 million to organize a rebel army in Syria, he recruited only 60 fighters, all but a handful of whom fled or were killed at the first flash of combat. Centcom was also accused, under his command, of slanting intelligence on ISIS to make the militia group seem weaker, and to make U.S. progress in the war against it seem farther along, than was actually the case
Some say these complaints are overstated. A former official who closely watched the Middle East in the Obama administration told me Monday night that it’s unfair to blame Austin for the Syrian initiative, saying failure was inevitable, regardless of the commander. And the Pentagon’s inspector general cleared Austin of the charge that he had deliberately falsified intelligence.
Even so, Austin is no Marshall or Mattis—and, besides, Mattis turned out to be an undistinguished defense secretary, in part because he relied too much on a coterie of fellow Marine officers, a fulfillment of the fear that prompted Congress to pass the restriction all those decades ago.* The waiver was meant to be used for truly extraordinary figures. Austin doesn’t seem to measure up to the standard.
In fact, after the Mattis confirmation, Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would vote against any future waivers, claiming that they should be granted no more than once in a generation. If Reed holds to his word, other Democrats—and certainly many Republicans looking for a way to embarrass Biden early in his term—may join him in rejecting the waiver for Austin.
Politico, which first reported on Austin’s pending nomination Monday night, laid out two plausible reasons for Biden’s choice. First, the president-elect has been under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus—especially from Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary last February all but sealed his victory for the Democratic nomination—to nominate more Black people to top Cabinet posts. Another Black nominee, Jeh Johnson, who was secretary of homeland security and chief Pentagon counselor in the Obama administration, was also on the shortlist for defense secretary but reportedly ran into some objections for his positions on detentions in the former job and on drone strikes in the latter. Johnson is still said to be a possible choice for attorney general.
The second factor weighing on Biden’s mind, according to Politico, citing a “former defense official close to the transition,” was that Austin “is believed to be a good soldier who would carry out the president-elect’s agenda.” There would be “less tension” with the White House, “maybe less disagreement … the relationship would be smoother.”
But someone who is knowledgeable of the transition process told me Monday night that Biden picked Austin “not because he’s Black but because he genuinely likes and respects” the general, whom he met several times—and got along with well—a decade ago, when Biden was vice president and Austin was the last American commander in Iraq before the troop pullout.
All of the president-elect’s national security nominees so far share this same trait—they’ve been close to Biden for a long time, and they’ve earned his trust.
One problem that Biden had with Michèle Flournoy—once thought to be the leading choice and certainly the most qualified for the job—is that she never was a member of his circle. Another problem is that, early on in the Obama administration, as undersecretary of defense for policy, she supported the generals’ recommendation to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan and to adopt a full-scale counterinsurgency (aka “nation-building”) strategy. As vice president, Biden opposed the surge and the strategy—he was the only senior member of the National Security Council to do so (he was right)—and he warned Obama not to let the top brass roll him or box him in on budgets and troop levels. Flournoy has since modified her views on the subject, but it could be that Biden regarded her as too beholden to conventional military thinking. In that sense, her endorsements from a wide range of defense specialists—officers, officials, think-tank denizens, and members of the congressional armed services committees—might have flashed more warning lights than reassurances.
If so, it might seem odd that Biden should pick a retired general instead. But this is where the Politico source’s reference to Austin as a “good soldier” might have paid off. As a policy intellectual with deep roots in the Pentagon, the think-tank world, and Congress, Flournoy might have been more formidable at rebutting and pushing back on some of Biden’s policies or preferences, whatever they might be (though not resisting once the decision is made)—whereas Austin, a West Point graduate who has followed the commandment of obeying civilian authority, might be more pliant.
In some ways, this is a good thing. Biden was right, and still is, about the military’s tendency to box in the White House. (In the crude but often accurate portrait of this trait, the generals present three options to a president: total war, surrender, and the option that they want the president to adopt.) In other ways, though, it could hamper independent thinking and fresh proposals—which are desperately needed in the Pentagon, which has remained mired in Cold War concepts, abetted by the uncontrolled spending spree of the Trump years.
Flournoy also recently come under fire from some progressive Democrats because her consulting firm, WestExec Partners, had contracts with defense corporations and because she sits on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton, a notable though relatively small defense contractor. By that measure, Austin might set off conflagrations of protest, as he sits on the board of Raytheon, the world’s second-largest defense contractor.
The rejection of Flournoy is also likely to irritate women, who voted for Biden in large number. Many women in the national security field, who are just beginning to be recognized as prominent experts, had petitioned Biden to nominate the first female defense secretary, just as many Black politicians had urged him to nominate the first Black person for the job.
Biden has now passed over two once-favored women for top Cabinet posts—Flournoy at the Pentagon and Susan Rice as secretary of state—which, whatever his reasons (in Rice’s case, the Republican-controlled Senate seemed unlikely to confirm her), is bound to demoralize many of his once-hopeful supporters.
He did nominate Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director and deputy national security adviser, as the first female director of national intelligence—a nomination widely heralded as a breakthrough—but Haines is less well-known and her new job, by nature, is less visible to the public.
Biden said during his campaign that, if elected, his Cabinet would reflect the diversity of the American people—a refreshing idea. But picking top officials solely on that basis risks alienating those of another race or gender who were pushing for someone from their group to get the job. It also risks creating the perception of an identity-politics hierarchy of Cabinet jobs: secretary of defense and attorney general must be Black or female, secretary of homeland security can be Hispanic, and so forth.
He did not pick Austin solely because he is Black, though the fact seems to have played some role in his decision. A Biden adviser told me two weeks ago that transition officials were figuring out the right balance between race and gender for secretary of defense and attorney general. Does this mean that, since the choice for the former is Black, the pick for the latter will be a woman? We’ll soon find out.
The important thing is that, and how well, they do their jobs—and what and how well Biden does as president. All else is trivial. My hope is that, three or four months from now, this column will be irrelevant.
Correction, Dec. 8, 2020: This piece originally stated that James Mattis had relied on fellow Army officers while secretary of defense. Mattis was a Marine.