Joe Biden on Wednesday formally nominated Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star army general and the former commander of the American military effort in Iraq, to be his defense secretary, casting him as uniquely qualified to lead a diverse military at a particularly challenging moment for the nation and the world.
If confirmed by the US Senate, Austin, 67, would make history as the first African American to lead the Pentagon, overseeing the 1.3 million active duty men and women who make up the nation’s military.
But his nomination has put some Democrats in a bind, as they weigh their commitment to civilian control of the military against a desire to elevate a history-making nominee to the role.
“In my judgment, there is no question that he is the right person for this job at the right moment, leading the Department of Defense at this moment in our nation’s history,” Biden said at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday afternoon. He called Austin the “definition of duty, honor and country” and a leader “feared by our adversaries, known and respected by our allies”.
Biden said Austin would help renew America’s relationship with allies, frayed by the Trump administration, and orient the defense department to confront threats ranging from pandemics to the climate emergency to refugee crises.
Yet Austin faces resistance on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have long warned against nominating a former commander to lead the Pentagon in a nation that prides itself on civilian control of the military. Federal law requires a seven-year waiting period between active duty military service and serving as the secretary of defense.
Austin retired in 2016, after a decorated 41-year military career. As such, Congress would have to grant a waiver for him to serve as defense secretary. In his remarks, Biden said he respected the need to draw a clear line between the military and civilian leadership, but urged Congress to grant Austin a waiver, as it did for retired marine general Jim Mattis to become Donald Trump’s defense secretary in 2017.
“I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it.” he said. “It does call for it.”
Speaking after Biden, Austin sought to allay concerns over his recent service, vowing to approach the role as a “civilian leader” with “deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military”.
“I recognize that being a member of the president’s cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform,” Austin said. “And I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind.”
During Mattis’s confirmation hearing, many Democrats spoke about the need for civilian control of the military, including four current members of the Senate armed services committee who opposed granting the waiver. Among them was the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who told reporters on Tuesday that she would oppose a waiver for Austin.
“I have great respect for General Austin – his career has been exemplary, and I look forward to meeting him and talking to him more,” she said. “But I opposed a waiver for General Mattis, and I will oppose a waiver for General Austin.”
Anticipating the objections from members of his own party, Biden took the unusual step of defending his choice for defense secretary in an op-ed published by the Atlantic on Tuesday.
“Austin also knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years,” Biden wrote. “He will work tirelessly to get it back on track.”
The Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate armed services committee, who said after supporting a waiver for Mattis that he would not support approving one for future nominees, signaled that he was open to the possibility. “In all fairness, you have to give the opportunity to the nominee to explain himself or herself,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Austin is also facing scrutiny over his ties to the defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, where he serves on the board. The selection has particularly concerned progressives, who implored Biden not to name a defense secretary with ties to weapons manufacturers.
From Wilmington, Biden recounted their working relationship, forged in hotspots across the Middle East, when he was the vice-president. Austin oversaw the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and subsequently overseeing US military operations throughout the Middle East as head of Central Command.
The Congressional Black Caucus pressured Biden to select an African American to lead the Pentagon. Biden said it was “past time the department had leadership that reflects that diversity”.
Roughly 43% of the active duty troops are people of color. Yet the most senior ranks of the military remain dominated by white men. During the course of his career, Austin was one of the few Black men to reach the upper echelons of military command, and became the first African American to command an entire theater of war.
If confirmed, Austin would lead the Pentagon at a moment when the military, like the rest of the country, is confronting its own legacy of racism and calls for institutional change.
A survey of active-duty subscribers to the Military Times, taken after the death of George Floyd sparked a nationwide protest movement for racial justice, found that roughly 31% of those polled and 57% of minority service members had seen examples of white nationalism or racism among the troops.
In the wake of the protests, top military leaders vowed to address racism within their ranks and expressed support for removing Confederate names from American military bases.
At this moment of national unrest, compounded by a pandemic and new security threats, America needs a “leader who will honor the service and sacrifice of those who wear the uniform of the United States”, said Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect. “General Austin is that leader.”