The Hindu Profiles | On Central Vista project, Mount Everest and Lloyd Austin

Lloyd Austin | From General to Secretary

Last week, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden nominated retired General Lloyd Austin for the crucial post of Secretary of Defense. If confirmed, the four-star General will become the first black person in the role. Gen. Austin’s name was chosen over several other possible candidates, including senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy and Obama-era Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is also African-American.

Explaining his pick in the Atlantic, Mr. Biden said the General had “met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency” in his more than 40 years in the U.S. Army. The two have a close and tested relationship from their Obama administration years — a factor that has played into the selection process. Mr. Biden argued that Gen. Austin is the person the country needed now because his experience and intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense made him uniquely match to the current challenges facing the country.

Also read: Biden says 'right moment' for Pentagon nominee Lloyd Austin, amid concerns over recent Army service

Immediately following his appointment, Gen. Austin will need to oversee an effort to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the country. In this context, Mr. Biden cited the General’s experience in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq (in 2011), the largest logistical operation undertaken by the Army in six decades as per Mr. Biden.

However, as with any high-profile candidate, Gen. Austin’s record does not come free of criticism. This has included the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria on the General’s watch when he led the U.S. Central Command (2013-16), overseeing West Asia operations. The criticism extended to Gen. Austin’s testimony during a 2015 Senate hearing on the training of a relatively small number of Syrian soldiers to fight the IS at a disproportionately high cost of $500 million. There were also allegations that the IS threat was downplayed, but Gen. Austin’s command was cleared of any wrongdoing.

“He is a true and tested soldier and leader. I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character,” Mr. Biden wrote in the Atlantic.

The President-elect said the General would promote diversity and look after the families of soldiers — an issue close to Mr. Biden’s heart, whose late son, Beau, was deployed to Iraq (and worked as staff lawyer on General Austin’s team).

Instrument of last resort

“Above all, I chose Lloyd Austin as my nominee for Secretary of Defense because I know how he reacts under pressure,” wrote Mr. Biden. Gen. Austin understood that force was an instrument of the last resort, Mr. Biden said. During his acceptance speech, Gen. Austin said he understood the importance of working with allies.

Some, especially conservatives and centrist Democrats, have argued that while there is much in favour of his candidacy, Gen. Austin is not quite the man for the moment. Critics say that he is not best placed to deal with the challenge of China, which many on both sides of aisle in Washington feel is the most important national security issue facing the U.S. The bulk of Gen. Austin’s experience has been in Afghanistan, Central and West Asia. The 2018 National Defense Strategy explicitly listed ‘great power competition’ with China and Russia as a primary focus — Gen. Austin does not, arguably, have adequate background experience in either region.

Post-retirement, Gen. Austin joined the board of arms manufacturer Raytheon — a position he is likely to be questioned on this during his confirmation — a process that will also require a Congressional waiver as the law requires a seven-year post-military cool-off period. Congress only recently gave President Donald Trump’s former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis a waiver and it is by no means a given that Gen. Austin will get one too. Some commentators and lawmakers are concerned that having a former General (again) fill a crucial civilian position could be detrimental to the principle of civilian control of the military.

Gen. Austin said he went from being General Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin four years ago. “It is an important distinction and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity,” he said. He will need to convince Congress of this.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 7:08:06 AM |

Next Story