President-elect Joe Biden called retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III “the right person for this job” as the 28th secretary of defense in an appearance Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.
Acknowledging that Austin will need a congressional waiver to serve as the civilian head of the Pentagon, Biden asked Congress to act, “just as they did for Jim Mattis” when he was selected to be President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, and grant the waiver.
Tune in as President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris introduce retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin III as their nominee to serve as the 28th United States Secretary of Defense. https://t.co/YJ0B1sICKV
— Biden-Harris Presidential Transition (@Transition46) December 9, 2020
Noting his personal experiences with Austin as vice president, Biden said, “he’s led major coalitions of allies and partners to fight terrorism, and it took some real diplomatic capacity to get that done.” Austin succeeded Mattis as the head of U.S. Central Command in 2013 and served in that post until 2016.
Biden’s son Beau served as a judge advocate general on Austin’s staff in Iraq when he was called to active duty as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard.
“We need his firsthand knowledge of the unmeasurable cost of war” on service members and their families, Biden said.
Austin said at the event that he comes to “this new role as a civilian leader, with military experience to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military.”
He called for a “healthy military-civilian relationship” with “meaningful civilian oversight.” Austin added that it was “fundamental” for the nation to know “the important distinction” between being called “general” and then “mister” the day he hung up his uniform.
Austin and Biden noted the necessity to have the department filled with civilian appointees with a broad base of knowledge and skills to serve in the new administration. The challenges that Biden, Austin and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris identified were deterring great power competitors from Europe across the globe to the Indo-Pacific, controlling the pandemic and delivering the necessary vaccines where and when needed, acknowledging climate change, and strengthening diplomacy.
The use of military force to resolve a crisis should be “the last tool in our tool kit,” Biden said.
How the waiver request will play on Capitol Hill is still in question. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, said in a statement that “it’s important Gen. Austin and the incoming Biden Administration explain why he should be granted an exception.” Already, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee, said in a statement Tuesday he was opposed to a waiver, as did Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who serves on the personnel subcommittee. Both voted against a waiver for Mattis.
On the other hand, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the full SASC, told reporters Tuesday that, although he voted against the Mattis waiver, he wanted “to give the opportunity to the nominee to explain himself to me.”
Other Democrats in Senate leadership roles were leaning that way as well.
The top SASC Republican, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), said Tuesday to reporters that he saw no reason why a waiver should not be granted.
What also has sparked some congressional concern was Austin serving on the boards of large defense contractors like Raytheon. A question likely be asked at a confirmation hearing is whether he would recuse himself from decisions involving the company.
In the Trump administration, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper served as Raytheon’s chief lobbyist, and acting SECDEF Patrick Shanahan worked for Boeing for 30 years, before taking over senior Defense Department positions. Both were questioned closely about possible conflicts when they appeared before the Senate for confirmation: Esper first as Army secretary, and Shanahan as deputy defense secretary.
If the waiver is granted and Austin is confirmed, he will become the first Black man to head the Pentagon. In his career, he was also the first Black general officer to command a division in combat, the 10th Mountain, and the first to command a corps in combat, the Multi-National Corps-Iraq.
Austin, in his remarks, noted how he came from Thomasville, Ga., as did Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black graduate from the Military Academy. He went on to be the first Black commander of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the 10th Cavalry.
“Many people have paved the way for me,” Austin said.
Austin mentioned the Montford Point Marines and Tuskegee Airmen, as well as mentors such as Colin Powell, Mike Mullen and Johnnie Wilson, who was the four-star leading the U.S. Army Materiel Command. Included in that group of “giants” was his first platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Fox Ballard, who “taught me the ways of the world” as a newly-commissioned second lieutenant in leading soldiers.
Biden said “more than 40 percent of our active-duty forces are people of color,” and they should see a diverse leadership in command.