On Tuesday, December 8, President-elect Biden announced General Lloyd J. Austin III (retired) as his nominee for 28th U.S. Secretary of Defense and published an op-ed titled “Why I Chose Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense.” Tomorrow, the President-elect and Vice President-elect will introduce General Austin in Wilmington at 2:30 pm.
General Austin is a retired four-star general of the U.S. Army and served as the 12th commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Previously, he was the Army Vice Chief of Staff, where he took steps to reduce the incidence of suicide and increase awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological impacts of war. Austin was Commanding General of U.S. Forces – Iraq, overseeing all U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and supervising the drawdown of U.S. forces in the country in 2010 and 2011, though he did advocate for an increase in troop presence to achieve his original mission of advising, training, and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In 2012, President Obama nominated Austin to command CENTCOM. In that position, he oversaw the development and execution of the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Since leaving the military in 2016, Austin has been on the board of Raytheon Technologies, steel producer Nucor, and health care company Tenet and is a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation. Records show he also operates his own consulting firm, Austin Strategy Group. Austin earned his bachelor’s from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a Master of Arts from Auburn University’s College of Education, and a Master’s in business management from Webster University. Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College.
General Austin is well-respected within the military and national security community. He is known for avoiding the limelight, rarely appearing at press conferences or at think tank events. Then-Vice President Biden worked closely with Austin on the drawdown in Iraq, and Biden’s son Beau served on Austin’s staff in Iraq. His nomination surprised many D.C. insiders, as it appeared until recently that Michèle Flournoy was at the top of the short list for Secretary of Defense. If confirmed, Austin will be the first Black Secretary of Defense.
General Austin’s nomination will require not only a Senate confirmation but also a Congressional waiver of the legislative mandate that candidates for Secretaries of Defense need to have spent at least seven years out of the service before nomination to the civilian position. Only two people in history have received this waiver – George C. Marshall (1950) and Jim Mattis (2017). The rule is intended to ensure that the Secretary of Defense does not favor the military in his or her considerations. The vote on Mattis’ waiver passed the Senate by 81-17 and passed the House by 268-151, with opposition mostly from Democrats.
Following the recent announcement, some Democrats have raised concerns about providing General Austin a waiver, and some national security experts have expressed concerns over the balance of civilian-military power at the Pentagon under another retired General. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) praised Austin’s selection, noting that Austin is a “proven leader whom I respect a great deal, and who I am confident will make an excellent Secretary of Defense.” However, Smith went on to say he was concerned about having a recently retired general lead the department and called on General Austin to meet with Armed Services Committee Members to discuss “civilian control of the military.” Moderate Democrats in the House, like Rep. Elisa Slotkin (D-MI), have also signaled they will not rubber-stamp a waiver. Several Democratic Senators have gone further, including Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT), who said he would not approve a waiver, and Senator Jon Tester (MT) said he did not think he would either. Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) previously pledged that he would not support the use of a waiver again following the waiver for Mattis but now could be open; he stated today that his “preference would be for someone who’s not recently retired” and that the quality of the nominee should be the most important factor.
If Austin receives a waiver, he must then be confirmed by the Senate through the standard confirmation process. During a confirmation process, General Austin is likely to face questions about his leadership roles in Iraq, including overseeing the 2010 / 2011 troop drawdown that some allege created the power vacuum allowing ISIS to form; Austin retired before serious headway was made in the fight against ISIS. He could also face headwinds from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, both for his previous advocacy for increased troop deployment to Iraq as U.S. Forces Commander and for his prominent industry board positions at Raytheon and Tenet after leaving the Army.