Biden Pentagon Choice Austin Vows to Uphold Civilian Control

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Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for defense secretary, went before a Senate committee Tuesday whose members have praised his past service as an Army general -- and have questioned whether that service would undermine civilian control of the military.

“I know that being a member of the president’s cabinet -- a political appointee -- requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “So, if confirmed, you can expect me to empower my civilian staff.”

Austin, 67, would make history as the first Black defense secretary at a time when questions are being raised about diversity and tolerance in the ranks. Although 40% of the U.S. force is now people of color, there’s evidence some service members and veterans have been active in white nationalist extremist groups, including in this month’s riot at the Capitol.

In addition to Senate confirmation, Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016, would need both chambers of Congress to pass a waiver from a law that bars former military officers from serving as defense secretary within seven years of stepping down in the name of ensuring civilian control. A waiver was most recently granted to President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, retired General James Mattis.

Biden Pentagon Choice Austin Vows to Uphold Civilian Control

The House has scheduled a floor vote on the waiver for Thursday. A group that represents a majority of House Republicans has opposed granting another exception, as have a number of senators of both parties. Some Senate Democrats have said they would opposed the waiver on principle -- but may then vote to confirm Austin if it’s approved anyway.

James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate committee’s Republican chairman, said “we are doing the right thing here,” suggesting he will back Austin’s confirmation and waiver.

But Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said that “Congress should no longer grant those waivers -- at all.” He said they’re becoming routine and tend to politicize the military.

Austin also pledged Tuesday to recuse himself for four years from most decisions involving defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corp., where he has been serving as a director.

That’s much longer than the customary one- or two-year recusal and won praise from Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a critic of the Pentagon’s revolving door with contractors who said it “sends a powerful message that you are working on behalf of the American people.”

Austin also has faced questions about his past leadership of U.S. forces in the Middle East. As head of U.S. Central Command during the Obama administration, Austin faced criticism over the department’s failure to train more than a handful of Syrian fighters despite a $500 million program designed to help combat the Assad regime.

Humble Beginnings

Emphasizing his humble beginnings as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia, Austin sought to convince senators that he understands the plight of the average American.

In a nod to the social tensions that pervade American society, Austin pledged to create in the military “a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment,” adding that he will “fight hard to stamp out sexual assault” and “to rid our ranks of racists and extremists.”

Questioned by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Austin sidestepped a clear commitment to proposals to take prosecutions of sexual assault out of the military chain of command. Instead, Austin said he would “work with the chain of command and very rapidly assess” what would need to be done.

In a written submission to the Senate committee, Austin also said that if confirmed:

  • He would “increase the speed and scale” of the Defense Department’s support for tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
  • He would work to rebuild defense relationships with allies and partners, “many of whom have felt unsure of U.S. commitments and insufficiently consulted in recent years.”
  • Considering the “ascent and the scope and scale” of China’s military modernization, he and the Biden administration “will view China as our most serious global competitor and, from a defense perspective, the pacing threat in most areas.”
  • He would review U.S. forces in the Middle East, hinting at a reduction by suggesting “we can better calibrate” the American presence and provide “opportunities to employ the force in other theaters.”

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