President-elect Joe Biden has reportedly elected retired Army General Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense. This makes him the first black and third retired military officer ever to be nominated for the post.
The news was first reported by Politico and then confirmed by CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
Austin's nomination comes as a bit of a surprise. For months, Michèle Flournoy, a former top official at the Pentagon, was expected to be Biden's candidate, making her the first woman to head the Department of Defense. In recent days, however, it has encountered resistance from a number of progressive groups unsettled by their previous support for the Afghanistan war and their ties to the defense industry. At the same time, members of the Black Caucus of Congress urged Biden to elect a black Secretary of Defense.
This paved the way for Austin to get the nod, especially as Biden seeks to create a more diverse cabinet that "looks like America."
There is no doubt about Austin's military qualifications. He began his career in the Army in 1975 as a second lieutenant and rose to four-star general and commander of US Central Command in 2013 – the US military organization that oversees operations in the Middle East. In this role, he gained notoriety as the "invisible general" who avoided the limelight and the press while leading the US military struggle against ISIS.
Sometimes he got attention for the wrong reasons. In September 2015, Austin informed the Senate Armed Forces Committee that only "four or five" of the 54 US-trained rebels were in Syria fighting the terrorist group. At that point, $ 42 million had been spent on the $ 500 million training program that began in April.
After retiring in 2016, then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter referred to Austin as "a soldier of a soldier," and then-President Barack Obama said he had "relied on his wise judgment and unwavering leadership."
Confirming Austin is not an easy process, however. Like former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Austin will demand a waiver of Congress to become Secretary of Defense as current law does not allow anyone to fill the role who has served in uniform for the past seven years on active duty. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said he would oppose a waiver of a recently retired officer.
Austin also serves on the board of directors at Raytheon Technologies, a major US defense company – a position that is sure to bring some progress.
Nevertheless, with this nomination, Biden has put the "invisible general" in the spotlight – and it remains to be seen how he behaves in it.
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