Correction: The original version of this article stated that no Black individual had been confirmed as service secretary. The Army has had two Black secretaries, Clifford Alexander and Togo West.
WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has reportedly selected Lloyd Austin III, a retired four-star Army general who most recently led the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, as his nominee for defense secretary.
Austin would become the first Black leader of the department if confirmed, but likely faces a steep path because he will require a waiver from Congress due to his recent service, an exception granted to only two secretary nominees in the last century.
Austin joined the Army in 1975, but his career is defined by post-9/11 conflicts. He was on the ground early in Iraq, where he was assistant division commander for the 3rd Infantry Division, and Afghanistan, where he commanded the 10th Mountain Division (Light). In 2008, he was named commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq. Austin also served as director of the Joint Staff, and in 2012 became vice chief of staff of the Army.
His career culminated as the head of U.S. Central Command, which he led from 2013-2016. His time at CENTCOM coincided with the rise of the Islamic State group, better known as ISIS, as well as the effort to grow an anti-ISIS military force in Syria. That train-and-equip mission led to an explosive congressional hearing, where Austin was ripped by members of Congress after he admitted the effort, underway for five months, had produced only “four or five” fighters.
Since leaving the Pentagon, Austin has joined the corporate boards of Raytheon Technologies, one of the largest defense firms in the world, as well as steel company Nucor, and Tenet Healthcare.
According to Title 10 of the United States Code, the defense secretary is among nine Senate-confirmed roles at the Pentagon that would require a waiver if the nominee has been a military officer in the last seven years. Austin retired from the Army in May 2016.
The waiver requires approval by Senate and House majorities, and the president’s signature. Given ongoing concerns about civil-military relations following the Trump administration, which relied significantly on former military officers in civilian roles, Biden may struggle to get enough votes to pass Austin through.
When the Senate in 2017 approved a waiver for retired Gen. Jim Mattis to serve, 17 Democrats voted against it, including four on the Senate Armed Services Committee today: Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren.
Citing a commitment to civilian leadership of the Pentagon, SASC ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said then that “waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation. Therefore I will not support a waiver for future nominees. Nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.”
Austin could also lose votes from Republicans who may not be looking to give Biden any help politically, and concerns from both the left and right about ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, all of which were overseen by Austin from 2013-2016.
But the choice will likely have support among Black lawmakers, who helped propel Biden to the White House — and whom in recent weeks have expressed a desire to see more Black Cabinet members named.
Biden had been under pressure from competing factions within his own party as he finalized his choice for secretary of defense. Black leaders have encouraged the incoming president to select an African American to diversify what has so far been a largely white prospective Cabinet, while others are pushing him to appoint a woman to lead the Department of Defense for the first time.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., a close Biden ally, expressed disappointment last month that African Americans — a voting bloc crucial to Biden’s presidential victory — have not featured more prominently among the early picks to fill out senior administration posts next year.
On Sunday, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass said that Biden needed to choose a Black defense secretary or attorney general nominee.
“Yes, I think it would be great if he did,” Bass, D-Calif., told CNN. “And for defense secretary, there’s two individuals that the Congressional Black Caucus would like to put forward, Lloyd Austin and Jeh Johnson.”
Not only will Austin become the first Black secretary, he becomes one of the few top-level, Black Senate-confirmed civilians in the Pentagon’s history.
Of the top civilian jobs in the department, there has never been a Black secretary or deputy secretary. Clifford Alexander was tapped as Army secretary in 1977, and Togo West held the same job starting in 1993. John Shannon served as acting Army secretary for eight months at the start of the Clinton administration, and B.J. Penn served as acting Navy secretary for two months at the start of the Obama administration.
Two Black men served at the undersecretary level: Edwin Dorn was confirmed as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the start of the Clinton administration, while Clifford Stanley was confirmed for the same role in 2010.
More broadly, Austin comes into the department at a time when leaders are acknowledging a racial divide within the military. Over the summer, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, since removed by President Donald Trump, launched a series of diversity and inclusion initiatives, saying “We must do better.”
In a July Military Times poll of service members, almost one-third of all active-duty respondents said they saw signs of white supremacist or racist ideology in the ranks. About 57 percent of minority troops polled said they have personally experienced some form of racist or white supremacist behavior.
Those issues extend to the top leadership of the department. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff CQ Brown became the first Black uniformed office to lead a service in Pentagon history when he was confirmed earlier this year; aside from Brown, none of the members of the Joint Chiefs, nor any of the current combatant command heads, are Black.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.