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Joe Biden unveils retired general Lloyd Austin as his pick to be first black defense secretary

President-elect Joe Biden formally unveiled his nominee to be Defense secretary as several Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren, said  they won’t vote for a congressional waiver that would let retired General Lloyd Austin serve in the post.

The lawmakers are citing concern about maintaining the tradition of a civilian-controlled military and the early opposition indicates a rocky confirmation process lies ahead for Austin, who would be the first black defense secretary if confirmed. 

Austin, dressed in a navy blue business suit, addressed the lawmakers’ concern in his remarks.

‘I come to this role now 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. I recognize that being a member of the president’s cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform,’ the retired four-star Army general said at the event at The Queen Theater in Wilmington.

‘I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind, and I look forward to surrounding myself with experienced, capable civilian appointees and career civil servants who will enable healthy civil-military relations grounded in meaningful civilian oversight,’ he said. 

Retired General Lloyd Austin addressed lawmakers concerns about needing a civilian to control the military in his remarks in Wilmington

President-elect Joe Biden personally vouched for his nominee to lead the Pentagon and asked Congress to approve the waiver so Austin Lloyd could be confirmed

President-elect Joe Biden personally vouched for his nominee to lead the Pentagon and asked Congress to approve the waiver so Austin Lloyd could be confirmed

Biden also gave his reassurances that civilian control of the armed forces if a paramount importance.

‘I believe in the importance of civilian control of our military — so does Secretary-designate Austin,’ he said in his introductory remarks.

He also personally vouched for his nominee.

‘I know this man. I know his respect for our Constitution. And I know his respect for our system of government. So, just as they did for Secretary Jim Mattis, I ask that Congress grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin,’ the president-elect said. 

The founding fathers were deeply skeptical of the United States having a standing army and believed the subordination of the military to a civilian authority was critically important to prevent the emergence of a new form of tyranny or dictatorship.

Biden pointed out the top Pentagon officials will be civilians under his administration. 

‘He will be bolstered by strong and empowered civilian senior officials working to shape DoD’s policies and ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people,’ the president-elect said of Austin.

‘The civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years, and I know that Secretary-designate Austin will work tirelessly to get it back on track,’ he added.

But Senators Elizabeth Warren, Jon Tester and Richard Blumenthal expressed concern about having a retired general atop the armed services. All of them also voted against a waiver for retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, when President Donald Trump nominated him as defense secretary.

‘I have great respect for Gen. Austin. His career has been exemplary, and I look forward to meeting him and talking to him more. But I opposed a waiver for General Mattis, and I will oppose a waiver for General Austin,’ she told CNN

The other senators echoed her reasoning.  

‘I didn’t for Mattis, so I probably wouldn’t for him,’ Tester said.

‘I have the deepest respect and admiration for General Austin,’ Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said. ‘His nomination is exciting and historic. But I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control of a nonpolitical military.’ 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said she will not vote for a waiver for Joe Biden's pick to lead the Pentagon, joining two other Democratic senators in saying no

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said she will not vote for a waiver for Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Pentagon, joining two other Democratic senators in saying no

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut

Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana

Senators Richard Blumenthal (left) and Jon Tester (right) expressed concern about having a retired general atop the traditionally civilian-led military

Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, needs a waiver to serve as Defense Secretary as he retired in 2016 and federal law requires a person to be at least seven years removed from the military; he would be the first African American to serve in that role if confirmed

Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, needs a waiver to serve as Defense Secretary as he retired in 2016 and federal law requires a person to be at least seven years removed from the military; he would be the first African American to serve in that role if confirmed

Austin, a retired four-star Army general, needs a waiver as he retired in 2016 and federal law requires a person to be at least seven years removed from the military. 

Biden  faced heavy pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus to pick an African American for the position.    

He stressed the historic nature of Austin’s nomination when he introduced his nominee. 

While Biden has rolled out most of his Cabinet in teams – national security, economic and healthcare – Austin received a solo welcome on Wednesday.

‘He was the first African American general officer to lead an Army Corps in combat. The first African American to command an entire theater of war. And, if confirmed, he will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department — another milestone in his barrier-breaking career of service,’ Biden said. 

And Austin noted the historic roots of his nomination.

‘Back in 1877, a young man from the small town of Thomasville, Georgia, Henry Ossian Flipper, became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. After his commissioning, he was assigned to one of the Army’s all-black regiments, and he became the first non-white officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry,’ he said.

‘Fast forward to today, nearly 150 years later, and another native son of Thomasville, Georgia stands before you as the Secretary of Defense-designate,’ he noted. 

Other Democratic senators who opposed the Mattis waiver are being put in a tough position by Biden with his decision to nominate Austin.

‘As you know from my past record, I’m very, very concerned about not having civilian control of the military, which I will weigh heavily in my analysis, but I do look forward to meeting him,’ said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was heavily opposed to Mattis’ nomination. 

‘I want to hear from the Biden administration, the Biden team, about why they feel this pick, with the necessary waiver, is so critical,’ said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a close Biden ally who opposed Mattis’ waiver. ‘I inherently trust the Biden administration on issues of national security in ways that I do not inherently trust the Trump administration. So I’m certainly — given that I’m a believer in his policy, I’m much more willing to give him deference.’ 

Others are making a play for time.

‘I want to give that some thought,’ Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said when asked about a waiver. 

And some have indicated Austin could get their support.

‘Well I opposed the waiver on Mattis, but I have to tell you I was so impressed with his performance that I would consider a waiver for Austin,’ Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-highest ranking Democrat, said. 

But Senator Charles Schumer, the top Democratic in the Senate, is noncommittal on Biden’s pick.

‘Well I’m gonna, I’m gonna have to study that. The bottom line is that Austin’s a very good nominee and we’ll figure out where to go from there. I haven’t talked to my colleagues yet about that I want to hear what they have to say,’ he said. 

The waiver requirement also brings the House of Representatives into the confirmation process – an area that is usually territory of the Senate, which is the only chamber that formally votes on confirmation.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to push through approval of a waiver for Biden, convincing her conference members in the process. 

On the House side, Armed Services committee Chairman Adam Smith already expressed reservations. He had championed Michele Flournoy, who would have been the first woman to run the Pentagon.

Smith also opposed Mattis’ nomination and had asked him to testify before the Armed Services Committee before the congressional vote to grant him the waiver.

Mattis refused and Smith became an ardent opponent of him. Mattis’s waiver ultimately passed 81 to 17 in the Senate and 268 to 151 in the House. 

Smith said Austin ‘should meet with members of the House Armed Services Committee so they can ask questions about civilian control of the military, and to be assured that General Austin is committed to this important principle.’

While nominees testify before the Senate during the confirmation process, it would be unusual for one to testify before the House. The Biden team hasn’t indicated if Austin will do so or not.  

Additionally, Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michgian, a former senior Pentagon official who worked with Austin, said she isn’t convinced. 

‘After the last four years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced,’ Slotkin said. ‘General Austin has had an incredible career — but I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.’

Retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump's pick for Defense secretary, needed and was granted a congressional waiver to serve in that role

Retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump’s pick for Defense secretary, needed and was granted a congressional waiver to serve in that role

Several Republican lawmakers, however, said they would support a waiver for Austin – a move that could save his nomination. 

‘I would do it in a heartbeat,’ said Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe, a Republican. ‘It’s not so much because of Austin. I don’t know him that well. I just never have believed that we should have to have that seven-year period in there. I just don’t believe that. I would support any of the waivers.’ 

Austin led U.S. Central Command and was the first black commander of CENTCOM. He was in charge of all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and previously was the top U.S. commander in Iraq. 

He is a graduate of West Point.  

After he retired, he served on the boards of Raytheon Technologies, Nucor, and Tenet Healthcare. 

Biden got to know Austin when he served as vice president and led Iraq policy for the Obama administration. Austin was a commander in the Middle East at the time.

Additionally, Austin was close to Beau Biden when Beau served on Austin’s staff in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.

The two men, both devout Catholics, attended Mass together, sitting side-by-side almost every Sunday, and they kept in touch after Beau returned from his deployment, Politico reported. 

Biden mentioned the relationship on Wednesday when he introduced Austin.

‘It’s why he has inspired so many young people who work for him to give their very best, and to live up to his example of leadership — including, for a time, a lawyer serving a year in Iraq with his Delaware Army National Guard unit. My son, Beau Biden. I know how proud Beau was to serve on your staff, General Austin. And I know that, under your leadership, the Department of Defense will advance the security of the American people in ways that always honor our highest values and ideals,’ he said. 


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