And so another retired general will be secretary of defense. When President Joe Biden nominated former Army commander Lloyd Austin for the post last month, several senators—including some Democrats—said they would oppose his confirmation, leery of eroding the tradition of civilian control over the military.
The Defense Department’s founders, back in 1947, were so adamant about civilian leadership that they wrote a law barring military officers from taking the job until at least seven years after retiring—unless both houses of Congress pass a formal waiver exempting them from the rule. After voting to grant a waiver to retired Gen. Jim Mattis at the start of the Trump administration, Jack Reed, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pledged never to do so again, saying that it shouldn’t happen more than once a generation. (Mattis was only the second defense secretary in history to get a waiver; the first was Gen. George Marshall, in 1950.)
But on Thursday, after the House approved a waiver, the Senate Armed Services Committee—which Reed now chairs—did the same, and then confirmed his nomination, on a voice vote. The full Senate is almost certain to do the same.
Congress gave Austin a pass for three reasons. First, the Senate tends to let a president choose his top Cabinet secretaries as long as they’re at least somewhat qualified for the job, and Austin—who was the Army’s vice chief of staff as well as commander of U.S. Central Command—is certainly qualified.
Second, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary, and rejecting him, for whatever reason, would send a dangerous signal at a time when even the Joint Chiefs of Staff have openly expressed concern about the rise of white supremacist views within the military ranks. (Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, made precisely this argument on Monday in a letter urging colleagues to vote for a waiver.) This is especially true since Austin, in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, committed to rooting out extremist views from the armed forces as a top priority. (He also pledged zero tolerance of sexual harassment.)
Finally, at that same hearing, Austin said many times, in many ways, that he would rely heavily on the Pentagon’s top civilian officials, turning to them for advice even more than he would turn to the Joint Chiefs. He even said that he would regard the presumptive deputy secretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks, as a “partner” in setting policy—unusual, as deputy secretaries usually play a more managerial role, running the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations. Austin also said he would routinely consult with Colin Kahl, nominated to be undersecretary of defense for policy, touting him at one point as a “very talented young man.” (Kahl will turn 50 this year, though Austin, who is 67, has known him since Kahl was in his late 30s. The two worked closely together during President Barack Obama’s first term, when Austin was the last commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Kahl was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East affairs.)
Austin’s pledge to work with the Pentagon’s top civilians seemed sincere—he also knew Hicks from when he was commander of CentCom and she was deputy undersecretary for policy. More than that, it stood in stark contrast with Mattis, who, as defense secretary, surrounded himself with a tight entourage of fellow Marine officers and ignored or dismissed civilian advice and analysis. In part for that reason, Mattis was an undistinguished secretary. Though he earned plaudits and scorn for restraining Trump’s belligerence toward U.S. allies, he imposed no discipline on the military’s unleashed appetite for weapons systems and left no legacy on defense policy broadly.
In other words, a great military commander doesn’t make a great secretary of defense; if anything, history suggests the contrary. The two jobs entail very different skill sets. Mattis’ failure, which highlighted this distinction, heightened many lawmakers’ concerns about confirming Austin; they didn’t want the militarization of the job to become normal.
So why did Biden choose Austin? The reason seems clear: Biden has known him for many years, trusts his judgment, and regards him as a member of his inner circle. The same is true of the other top members of his foreign policy team. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Colin Kahl all worked as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president; Blinken also served as Biden’s staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines also worked on Biden’s Senate staff, then became Obama’s deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the CIA, where she continued to have contact with Biden.
Biden and Austin got to know each other well in Iraq, when Austin was commander of U.S. troops and Biden was entrusted by Obama to work out the details of the American withdrawal. The two became particularly close when Biden’s late son, Beau, served on Austin’s staff in Iraq in 2008–09. As Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman reported in Politico, “Austin and the younger Biden attended Mass together, sitting side-by-side almost every Sunday, and they kept in touch after Beau returned from his deployment.”
There’s nothing wrong with this. A president must have trust in his Cabinet secretaries, especially the defense secretary, who speaks with the highest authority in advising him whether or not to send troops into combat. And this trust can be based on whatever makes the president comfortable. Biden is comfortable with Austin. Austin says he’ll rely for advice on a very competent crew of civilian advisers—not just Hicks and Kahl, but also 22 new midlevel specialists, many of whom worked in the transition team (along with Hicks and Kahl), don’t require Senate confirmation, and were sworn in on Wednesday.
Maybe it will all work out.