If the rumors are true, then President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin as the secretary of defense. If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary of the United States.
According to sources who spoke anonymously to the Associated Press, the choice for who would helm the Pentagon was between Michele Flournoy, “a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who would have been the first woman to serve as defense secretary” and Austin. Ultimately, Biden chose to go with Austin, who was reportedly offered the post on Sunday and accepted.
As a career military officer, the 67-year-old Austin is likely to face opposition from some in Congress and in the defense establishment who believe in drawing a clear line between civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon. Although many previous defense 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 defense secretary. Congress intended civilian control of the military when it created the position of secretary of defense in 1947 and prohibited a recently retired military officer from holding the position.
AP notes that Austin graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975 and served 41 years in uniform. The relationship between Biden and Austin began during Biden’s tenure as vice-president when Austin was leading U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president; that same year, Austin was a “commander in Baghdad of the Multinational Corps-Iraq” and would lead U.S. troops from 2010 through 2011.
If confirmed as the secretary of defense, that wouldn’t be the first barrier-breaking position that Austin’s had, although it would be the highest-ranking. In 2012, Austin served as the first “Black vice chief of staff of the Army, the service’s No. 2-ranking position,” AP notes.
Austin retired from the Army in 2016, which could pose a problem during his confirmation as he will need a congressional waiver noting that he’s not been out of the military for at least seven years but can still assume the high-ranking position. AP notes that “the waiver has been granted only twice—most recently in the case of [James] Mattis, the retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.”
Austin has shied away from the public spotlight, both during his time in the armed forces and after his retirement. He’s a highly respected leader who, AP notes, would not be the prototypical defense secretary.
“It would be an understatement to say he was a quiet general; although he testified before Congress, he gave few interviews and preferred not to speak publicly about military operations.”
The good Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been pushing Biden along with other civil rights leaders to have more Black cabinet members, told AP that he believes Austin is a solid pick.
“It’s a good choice that I think many in the civil rights community would support. It’s the first time we have seen a person of color in that position. That means something, in a global view, especially after such an antagonistic relationship we had with the previous administration.”
Sharpton added: It’s “a step in the right direction but not the end of the walk.”