President-elect Joe Biden introduced retired Army General Lloyd Austin as his pick for defense secretary and urged lawmakers to grant him a waiver to take the role despite his recent military service.
“In my judgment, there’s no question that he is the right person for this job at the right moment,” Biden said of Austin, who would be the first African American to lead the Pentagon. “He’s led major coalitions of allies and partners to fight terrorism, and it took some real diplomatic capacity to get that done.”
Biden took note of the waiver from Congress Austin will need to assume the role of Defense secretary because it has been fewer than seven years since he retired from the military. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed reluctance at doing so for Austin, even though they granted one for Jim Mattis when he was named President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.
“There’s a good reason for that law that I understand and respect,” he said. “I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military.”
Nevertheless, Austin’s military experience would be an asset, Biden said.
“We need his firsthand knowledge of the unmeasurable cost of war and the burden it places on our service members and their families,” he said.
Austin, 67, was the first Black general to command U.S. forces in the Middle East and, if confirmed, would break another barrier as the first Black leader of the Defense Department.
Austin noted the historic nature of his selection and the African-American military leaders who came before him, but said he understood the new role required different skills.
“When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time and went from being General Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin,” he said. “It is an important distinction.”
“I recognize that being a member of the president’s cabinet requires a different perspective and responsibilities from a career in uniform.”
Some lawmakers already have said they oppose granting the waiver, and others expressed concern. Congress previously voted an exemption for Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general. On Tuesday, three of the 17 Senate Democrats who voted against a waiver for Mattis — who, ultimately, was easily confirmed — said they’d also oppose one for Austin, who retired in 2016.
Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee combat veteran who served in Iraq, told NBC she would not support the waiver, even though she expected it to pass and supported the idea of Austin leading the Pentagon.
“I just can’t support that on principle,” she said. “I will tell you that General Austin is an excellent officer, well-tested, very capable of leading the Department of Defense and I think he will be an excellent secretary of Defense. But on principle i cannot vote for the waiver.”
Austin was the head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016 under President Barack Obama, replacing Mattis in a role overseeing troops in a region that includes Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
After his retirement in 2016, Austin founded Austin Strategy Group LLC. He also serves on the board of Raytheon Technologies Corp., one of the Pentagon’s top contractors and the supplier of many of the weapons that Trump’s administration has approved for sale to Saudi Arabia.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are likely to push Austin in confirmation hearings to adopt strict rules for recusal from decisions involving Raytheon and other companies he’s worked with. It’s not a new issue: Under Trump, recently ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper was a former top lobbyist for Raytheon and Mattis had been on the board of defense contractor General Dynamics Corp.
Austin is a native of Thomasville, Georgia, and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also holds a master’s degree in education from Auburn University and a master’s degree in business management from Webster University.