We know President-Elect Biden has generated some controversy by selecting retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to be the Secretary of Defense in the new administration. I, for one, don’t approve; not because of Austin, but because our principles as a nation reinforce the thought that the defense establishment ultimately needs to be governed by a civilian, not a military person. In fact, a waiver by Congress is required if the nominee is a recently military retiree, which is the case with Austin. Not unprecedented for that to occur and perhaps it will in this case, but here are a few things you should know about this candidate for one of the most important posts in government.
• His career has been one of breaking glass ceilings. Highly respected, Austin would be the first black Secretary of Defense. He was also the first black general to command an Army Division, to lead an Army Corps in combat, to command an entire theater of war, to serve as the Army Vice Chief of Staff, and to command CENTCOM. None of this came by being black. It all came by being extraordinarily well qualified. He’s done it all. He has also been just the sixth African American in the Army to become a four star general.
• He has ties to the defense industry as a board member of Raytheon Technologies, and a partner in a company which buys up small defense companies. Nothing illegal about all that, which he will give up if confirmed, but this “revolving door” practice is often criticized by both political parties; though particularly by Democrats.
• A quiet man, Gen. Austin is famous for not being famous. Avoids the media, avoids the public, and never takes reporters with him when he travels. If it’s “on the record” it likely won’t be televised if Austin is in charge.
• A bond exists with the president-elect. It seems the president-elect is turning to long-time associates and confidants for key positions and Austin is no exception. During the Obama Administration, Austin commanded U.S. Forces in Iraq and later led U.S. Central Command; as Vice President, Mr. Biden no doubt knew Gen. Austin and knew him well.
• Austin was capable of controversy. At a 2015 hearing, then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, suggested that Gen. Austin’s testimony was “divorced from the reality”, and later Austin was broadly criticized that a $500M program to train moderate Syrian soldiers to fight ISIS had produced little result.
So, it remains to be seen the fate that awaits the nomination of this truly remarkable Army general. Or his success as a potential Defense Secretary running the Pentagon.
Lee Baxter is a former commanding general of Fort Sill.