Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin made his first public remarks on Wednesday after President-elect Joe Biden selected him for defense secretary, making his case that he can be trusted to run the Defense Department like a civilian.
Austin’s potential appointment has drawn backlash from both sides of the aisle, as critics argue that his recent, decades-long military career is not the best fit for the tradition of civilian control of the armed forces.
“It is an important distinction, and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity,” Austin said of taking off the uniform four years ago. “I recognize that being a member of the president’s Cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform. And I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind.”
Austin last served at the head of U.S. Central Command, capping off more than 40 years as an infantry officer that began at the United States Military Academy.
By law, a former service member needs to have spent seven years out of uniform before being nominated to lead DoD, and Austin’s nomination would mark two administrations in a row who tapped recently retired generals to lead the department.
“...(the) Mattis waiver was supposed to be a one off, not the start of a trend that’s bad for civ-mil relations,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a Marine Corps veteran, wrote on Twitter Monday night, speaking of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, as well as a former CENTCOM commander.
“...former generals as SecDef should be the exception not the norm,” Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., an Army veteran, also tweeted.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris repeatedly referred to Austin as “General” in their remarks, calling into question whether he has truly distanced himself from his former role.
Or they have.
“I want to thank you, Gen. Austin, for once more stepping forward to serve this nation,” Biden said. “This is not a post he sought, but I sought him.”
Biden pointed to Austin’s track record working with partners and allies, as well as the logistical experience that will be required to support DoD’s role in the Operation Warp Speed COVID-19 vaccine effort, as evidence of his qualifications.
“There’s a good reason for this law, that I fully understand and respect, and I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in history called for it,” Biden said. “It does call for it.”
He described Austin as “feared by our adversaries” and “known and respected by our allies.” He also said Austin “helped end a war” for his role in the end of combat operations in Iraq almost a decade ago.
We know now that pulling troops out of Iraq laid the groundwork for the ISIS caliphate to take hold, and Austin’s critics have called his record on confronting the terrorist group into question.
During a brutal 2015 hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., laid into Austin after he testified that a $500 million plan to create a Syrian force to counter ISIS led to only “four or five” fighters.
“I have not attended a hearing that has so grossly distorted as the view of a terrible and tragic situation as I have seen from the witnesses,” McCain lashed out.
Several investigations were launched after allegations that CENTCOM intelligence officials were altering reports to make it appear as if ISIS was less successful than it really was.
A January 2017 inspector general report concluded that despite allegations that “intelligence products were falsified, distorted, delayed, or suppressed to make the counter-ISIL campaign appear more successful than the intelligence warranted” and while there was a perception among some of the command’s intelligence personnel of such altering, investigators determined that was not the case.
“We did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that the CCJ2 or its leaders changed intelligence to make it factually untrue. Nor did they present, or allow to be presented, any intelligence assessments that they did not believe were accurate,” the report concluded.
In both Biden’s and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s remarks, the groundbreaking nature of Austin’s nomination featured heavily.
He would be the first Black man to run DoD, another first in several he attained in uniform. More than 40 percent of troops are people of color, Biden said, and they deserve a leader who reflects them.
“It’s long past time that the department’s leadership reflects that diversity,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.