President-elect Biden’s pick for defense secretary creates division in the Democratic Party

President-elect Biden’s pick for defense secretary creates division in the Democratic Party
Source: Lucas Jackson, Reuters
Biden’s choice echoes a comparable pick by President Donald Trump, raising concerns in the Democratic Party that this norm has been irreversibly broken.

On December 8, President-elect Joe Biden published a piece in The Atlantic entitled, “Why I Chose Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense.” In it, Biden laid out the qualities retired United States Army General Lloyd J. Austin possesses that would make him a vital member of his cabinet and as the leader of the armed forces. Among them was Austin’s diplomacy, patriotism and “personal decency.”

As one of the first Black men to achieve the rank of four-star general, Austin is a choice that would help solidify a highly qualified, diverse cabinet. Austin’s distinguished military career also appears to be an asset for someone who would oversee not only the Army, but the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and the newly created Space Force.

Yet, Austin is a divisive choice because of his military service. Historically, the defense secretary has been a civilian, someone outside the military who can lead the Department of Defense with objectivity. Biden’s choice echoes a comparable pick by President Donald Trump, raising concerns in the Democratic Party that this norm has been irreversibly broken.

Who is Austin Lloyd?

Lloyd James Austin III was raised in Georgia and attended the US military’s prestigious West Point Academy. In addition to a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point, Austin completed a master’s degree in education at Auburn University and a master’s degree in business management at Webster University.

Since being commissioned as an Infantry second lieutenant in 1975, Austin’s military career has included serving with multiple divisions around the world. As a general, he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq from 2001 to 2003 and in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

Austin achieved the highest rank possible in the Army, that of four-star general, in September 2010 when he replaced General Raymond T. Odierno as the commander of US forces in Iraq. At the time, Austin was only the sixth Black person to achieve that rank, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Since 2010, two other Black people have achieved the four-star rank.

Austin led Operation New Dawn, the goal of which was to end US military operations in Iraq and help establish a sovereign state overseen by local civilians.

After leaving Iraq, Austin served as the vice chief of staff for the US Army. In 2013, he was nominated by then-President Barack Obama to serve as the commander of US Central Command (or Centcom), which oversees unified military combat operations in the Middle East and much of Asia. Austin retired from the military in 2016.

Austin’s military performance was recognized with over a dozen commendations, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge.

Objections to Austin’s nomination

If confirmed, Austin would become the first Black person to lead the Defense Department. It would be yet another milestone achieved under the Biden administration, which includes Vice President-elect Kamala Harris becoming the first woman, Black person and person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president. However, Austin’s confirmation remains up in the air.

The former general certainly has supporters who believe his long military career and combat experience make him perfectly fit for defense secretary. Austin’s advocates have argued that his firsthand knowledge of battle will make him better suited to make decisions that will directly affect those who are serving in the field.

Opponents to Austin’s nomination have argued that the head of the military should be a civilian. Traditionally, the military has been led by civilians to ensure a division between politics and the military. This separation is also seen as a bulwark against a potential military coup.

Members of the armed forces are expected to serve the country and recognize the authority of the president, who is the commander in chief of the US military, no matter what political party that person represents. Some fear that elevating a former member of the military to the head of US forces risks breaching that apolitical bubble.

Additionally, a civilian leader is more likely to challenge the military status quo and bring a non-militaristic mindset to matters of national defense.

When the Department of Defense was created in 1947 by an act of Congress, the law required the secretary of defense be a civilian. The law was later amended to allow former military officers to serve in the role so long as they had been retired for at least seven years.

Others have objected to Austin’s nomination because he serves on the board of Raytheon, a global leader in weapons manufacturing. This direct link to military contractors seemingly confirms progressives’ criticism that the Biden administration will continue America’s “endless war.” It also reaffirms that Austin would bring a non-civilian perspective to the role.

The breaking of norms

Since Austin has only been retired for four years, he will require a waiver from the Senate to be allowed to serve. For many Democrats, this is an uncomfortable reality, because members of the party had previously opposed Trump’s first nominee for defense secretary, former General James Mattis.

Mattis retired in 2013 after serving, like Austin, as the commander of Centcom. As with Austin, opposition to Mattis serving as defense secretary cited the standard requirement that a civilian should serve in the role. It was speculated that, if there was enough resistance from Democrats in the Senate, they could refuse to give Mattis the waiver and block his appointment.

Despite rumors of dissent, though, when the Senate voted on Mattis’s confirmation on January 20, he was confirmed almost unanimously. The only nay vote was from Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Mattis’s time as defense secretary was at times rocky and included heated conflicts with Trump over how to lead the military. Ultimately, Mattis resigned in 2018 after he expressed vehement disagreement with the president’s sudden decision to pull American troops out of Syria.

Some Democrats are concerned that confirming Austin as defense secretary will only further cement the breaking of the tradition related to civilian leadership over the military. It also represents, at least in part, an about-face for a party that spent much of the last four years decrying the many norms Trump broke as president.

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