Opinion | The Battle Over Biden’s Defense Secretary Has Begun

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President-elect Joe Biden took the extraordinary step this week of asking Congress to confirm a recently retired general, Lloyd Austin, as his secretary of defense. To get his way, Mr. Biden will need Congress to waive a 1947 federal law meant to ensure that control over the military remains in civilian hands. That has happened only twice, but most recently in 2017 for Gen. James Mattis.

“This is becoming a trend,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said on Tuesday, “and I don’t like it.”

Why did Mr. Biden put members of his own party in this position, and is General Austin’s appointment worth the controversy it’s already caused in Congress? Here’s what people are saying.

A norm-breaking pick

Before retiring as a four-star general in 2016, Lloyd Austin served for 41 years in the military. He became the top commander of American forces in Iraq in 2010, when the United States still had roughly 50,000 service members there, and oversaw their withdrawal. Four years later, he spearheaded the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

General Austin is said to be widely respected in the military, but he maintained a lower profile than some of the most prominent generals of the Obama era. For that reason, people close to the transition told The Times that General Austin could fulfill Mr. Biden’s hopes for a Pentagon chief who keeps his policy preferences closer to the vest.

General Austin would also be the first Black defense secretary. More than 70 years after the military became racially integrated, about 16 percent of the 1.3 million active service members are Black, but the institution’s upper echelons are occupied almost entirely by white men. In a survey conducted last fall by Military Times, 53 percent of minority service members said they had seen examples of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism among their fellow troops.

“Black Americans have sacrificed their lives for this country in every war since the Revolutionary War,” the Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement. “Appointing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to a position of command and authority over the United States military, second only to the president of the United States, is historic and well deserved.”

But others are less enthused about the other extraordinary aspect of the selection. The principle of civilian control over the military goes back to the nation’s founding, and its absence has historically been associated with authoritarian regimes. Between the 1960s and the 2000s, active-duty or retired military officers led the defense ministries of democratic countries in only about 10 percent of cases, according to Peter White, an assistant professor in the department of political science at Auburn University.

“Healthy democracies need a division of labor between military leaders, who are trained to follow orders and win battles, and civilian ones, who are tasked with asking hard questions about why those battles are being fought in the first place,” The Times editorial board writes. “That’s why mature democracies around the world have civilians serving in that role.”

Politicians from both parties appear to agree: Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats who opposed granting a waiver for General Mattis, have said they will likewise oppose granting one for General Austin, and Senators Susan Collins and Tom Cotton, both Republicans, have also expressed deep reservations.

‘The Department of Defense Contractors’

General Austin also has ties to the defense industry that have raised concern. He is a partner at an investment firm that buys military suppliers, and serves on the board of Raytheon, one of the world’s largest weapons makers. Raytheon’s bombs are used to kill civilians in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which the United Nations has called “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” and which Democrats have promised to end.

“If General Austin were to recuse himself from decisions on programs and policies involving Raytheon, he could not carry out large parts of his job as defense secretary,” William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told The Intercept.

General Austin is hardly alone in possessing such baggage. As a report from the Project on Government Oversight found in 2018, hundreds of people have passed through the revolving door between the Department of Defense and the corporations it does business with in recent years, which “often confuses what is in the best financial interests of defense contractors — excessively large Pentagon budgets, endless wars and overpriced weapon systems — with what is in the best interest of military effectiveness and protecting citizens.”

Like General Austin, the recently ousted defense secretary Mark Esper also worked at Raytheon, serving as the company’s top lobbyist. (Mr. Esper’s predecessor, Mr. Mattis, served on the board of General Dynamics, another major military contractor.) In a tense exchange with Mr. Esper during his confirmation hearing last year, Senator Warren said that his refusal to recuse himself from all matters involving Raytheon’s financial interests “smacks of corruption, plain and simple.”

[Related: “The Department of Defense Contractors”]

But some Democrats appear to have decided that General Austin is the best choice on offer. Michèle Flournoy, who was widely believed to be the front-runner for the position, serves on the board of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and co-founded WestExec Advisers, a secretive consulting firm that does not disclose its corporate client list.

But unlike General Austin, Ms. Flournoy has widely known views on foreign policy that have drawn criticism from advocates of military restraint. As an under secretary of defense in the Obama administration, Ms. Flournoy supported a troop surge in Afghanistan and the NATO intervention in Libya. More recently, she reportedly tried to persuade representatives of national-security groups to decide against calling for a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to its war in Yemen, which to two people present “sounded like Flournoy was working for Raytheon.”

Given the alternative, some of the most vocal opponents of the war, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna, have been more supportive of General Austin’s nomination than their colleagues.

For Biden’s defense secretary, a very different first test

“The next secretary of defense will need to immediately quarterback an enormous logistics operation to help distribute Covid-19 vaccines widely and equitably,” according to Mr. Biden. In an article he wrote for The Atlantic on Tuesday, he explained that he chose General Austin in part because of his experience overseeing the similarly complex logistical operation of the Iraq drawdown.

In invoking the military’s role in vaccine distribution, Mr. Biden joins President Trump, though exactly what its role might look like has been a matter of some confusion. Mr. Trump has given the impression that troops would be transporting vials and even administering shots, but The Times has reported that the role of the military is both less public and more pervasive. Scores of Defense Department employees are involved in the effort, and while none is expected to even touch a vaccine, “every logistical detail you could think of — needles, syringes, swabs, bandages, dry ice” could be procured through government contracting, according to a Trump administration official.

But tying the vaccine rollout to the Defense Department could increase skepticism about taking it. “White people would be more likely to question the government’s competence, while African-Americans would be more likely to question the government’s motives,” Sandra Quinn, a University of Maryland health equity professor who studies racial differences in flu vaccination rates, told Roll Call. “Does the government really have our best interest at heart?” she said of her research.

These may not be concerns that a military leader is equipped to assuage. General Austin has generally avoided speaking publicly or with the media, and he is not known for his political instincts. He drew criticism, for example, after acknowledging the failure of a $500 million program to raise an army of Syrian fighters in a 2015 congressional hearing, which was described by a former Senate aide as “one of the most awkward I ever witnessed.”

What’s next

Senator Charles Schumer, the minority leader, has called for confirmation hearings to begin immediately after the Georgia Senate elections on Jan. 5 so that Mr. Biden can fill his cabinet when he assumes office on Jan. 20. According to Politico, senators plan to ask General Austin “tough questions about his views on numerous pressing global issues, from China to climate change, that go well beyond the military realm and with which he has far less experience and little public record.”

But, ultimately, the answers to these and other questions about the future of America’s role in the world will be up not only to Mr. Biden and Congress, but to the American people. We’ll explore them more in the coming weeks.

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“The real reason Biden’s pick for Pentagon chief is the wrong choice” [The Washington Post]

“Team of Rivals? Biden’s Cabinet Looks More Like a Team of Buddies” [The New York Times]

“Sorry, Gen. Lloyd Austin. A Recently Retired General Should Not Be Secretary of Defense.” [The New York Times]

“Biden Aides’ Ties to Consulting and Investment Firms Pose Ethics Test” [The New York Times]


Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Pandemic anger.

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Nathan: “Every stranger who comes near me is a ticking Covid bomb and will be treated as such.”

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