President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin as defence secretary, according to two people familiar with the decision, making him the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
Austin has already had a career punctuated by firsts — including as the first Black general to command U.S. forces in the Middle East.
The choice of Austin came as Biden was under pressure from African American lawmakers and organizations to deliver on his pledge to produce the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history. Biden’s transition office declined to comment on his decision on Monday night in advance of an announcement.
In addition to winning Senate confirmation, Austin would need Congress to waive a law requiring military officers to be retired for seven years before serving as defence secretary. Lawmakers have said they would be reluctant to provide another exemption after having done one for retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first defence secretary.
Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official who would have been the first female defence secretary, was an early favorite for the post, but Biden considered Austin and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is also Black, at the urging of Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, a close Biden supporter, according to one of the people. Biden’s choice of Austin was reported earlier Monday by Politico.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are to take part in a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders on Tuesday.
Austin, 67, was the head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016 under President Barack Obama, replacing Mattis in that key military role overseeing troops in a region including Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
When Austin was named to lead Centcom, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the general had a “calm demeanor, strategic vision, regional experience and knowledge, and proven judgment.” But critics complained that Austin rarely answered questions or shared his thoughts publicly.
Austin’s role overseeing the military campaign to defeat Islamic State terrorists put him on the hot seat for a $500 million effort to train and equip forces in Syria. Under congressional grilling, Austin acknowledged that at one point only “four or five” Syrian rebels trained by the United States were actually in Syria.
Republicans and Democrats criticized the results of the program, which was meant to produce a force of 5,400 by December 2015.
Resistance in Congress to Austin’s nomination is likely to stem in large part from doubts about undermining the restriction on putting a recent military retiree in a job intended to ensure civilian control of the military.
“After four years of chaotic civilian-military dynamics and military politicization, I see no upside to placing a retired general officer at the top of an institution that desperately needs a civilian-military reset,” Loren DeJonge Schulman, a defence analyst, said on Twitter on Nov. 26. “We need strong military leadership and strong civilian leadership. They are distinct.”
Senators are also expected to press Austin, who serves on the board of Raytheon Technologies Corp., one of the Pentagon’s top contractors, to recuse himself from decisions involving the company and any other defence firms he may have worked for as owner of Austin Strategy Group LLC, which he founded in 2016.
When the general retired, Obama said Austin oversaw “military operations in one of the most demanding regions of the world” and that he “relied on his wise judgment and steadfast leadership to help me navigate the many challenges we find there.”
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.
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