Biden’s pick for defence secretary would be first Black man to lead the Pentagon

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired four-star army general Lloyd J. Austin to be U.S. secretary of defence, according to four people familiar with the decision. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Austin would be the first Black leader of the Pentagon.

Biden selected Austin over the longtime front-runner candidate, Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who would have been the first woman to serve as defence secretary. Biden also had considered Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel and former secretary of homeland security.

The impending nomination of Austin was confirmed by four people with knowledge of the pick who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the selection hadn’t been formally announced.

As a career military officer, the 67-year-old Austin is likely to face opposition from some in Congress and in the defence establishment who believe in drawing a clear line between civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon. Although many previous defence secretaries have served briefly in the military, only two — George C. Marshall and James Mattis — have been career officers. Marshall also served as secretary of state.

Like Mattis, Austin would need to obtain a congressional waiver to serve as defence secretary. The laws were meant to preserve the civilian nature of the department.

Four decades in the military

Austin is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served 41 years in uniform.

Biden has known Austin at least since the general’s years leading U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq while Biden was vice president. Austin was commander in Baghdad of the Multinational Corps-Iraq in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and he returned to lead U.S. troops from 2010 through 2011.

Austin also served in 2012 as the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army, the service’s No. 2-ranking position. A year later he assumed command of U.S. Central Command, where he fashioned and began implementing a U.S. military strategy for rolling back the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

James Mattis, who also previously served in the military, faced criticism as defence secretary for surrounding himself with military officers at the expense of a broader civilian perspective. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Austin retired from the Army in 2016, and he would need a congressional waiver of the legal requirement that a former member of the military be out of uniform at least seven years before serving as secretary of defence. That waiver has been granted only twice — most recently in the case of Mattis, the retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.

The Mattis period at the Pentagon is now viewed by some as evidence of why a recently retired military officer should serve as defence secretary only in rare exceptions. Although Mattis remains widely respected for his military prowess and intellect, critics say he tended to surround himself with military officers at the expense of a broader civilian perspective. He resigned in December 2018 in protest of Trump’s policies.

Politico first reported Biden’s selection of Austin.

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