WASHINGTON ― Immediately after President-elect Joe Biden announced he would nominate retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon, members of Congress questioned whether the selection would upend the relationship between civilian and military leaders in the department.
In the days that followed, Austin’s advocates have been asking lawmakers to think hard about another topic: the retired general’s race.
Particularly in a year of extraordinary racial tension in the country, the nomination is putting some congressional Democrats in a political bind. On one hand, some lawmakers have opposed naming recently retired military officers to a post typically occupied by civilians. On the other, they don’t want to defy their party’s incoming president nor be seen as blocking history and the first Black defense secretary.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has said he’s concerned about waiving a requirement that the position be filled by someone who has been out of active-duty military service for at least seven years and “would prefer [the position] be a civilian person.” But Smith acknowledged he is balancing that issue with worries about the military’s “diversity problem.”
“It is historic and very important that General Austin would be the first African American secretary of defense,” Smith told MSNBC this week.
More than 70 years after the military was integrated, racial and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented at the highest levels of military leadership. Austin, who served 41 years in the Army and retired in 2016, was the 200th person ever to attain the rank of an Army four-star general, but only the sixth African American.
In an endorsement of Austin from the World War II Tuskegee Airmen this week, the group noted that minorities make up 43 percent of the military but only two African Americans are among the 41 most senior commanders in uniform. (Gen. CQ Brown is the Air Force chief of staff and Gen. Michael X. Garrett leads the Army’s Forces Command.)
There are practical and political incentives for Biden to seek confirmation of an African American defense secretary. Black voters were instrumental in helping Biden flip the reliably red state of Georgia, where there will be two extremely important runoffs to determine control of the Senate and the fate of Biden’s agenda in Congress.
In addition, Biden has been under pressure to select more African Americans to his Cabinet from African American leaders, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. Clyburn’s early endorsement of Biden is credited with catapulting the president-elect’s candidacy. The Congressional Black Caucus supported both Austin and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who would not have required a waiver to serve.
After the selection was made, Clyburn, D-S.C., said that Austin’s experiences as an African American are needed at the top to remedy systemic inequalities.
“So much of what we do in our governmental process is sometimes skewed because people have not had the kind of experiences that are necessary in order to have the compassion and the empathy that is needed for our brave men and women serving in the armed services,” Clyburn told CNN this week. “This was a historic election, and I think that I wanted to see this administration do historic things, and this is a historic occasion.”
Highlighting some of the barriers to the top rungs of the Defense Department, Biden recognized Austin’s “distinguished and trailblazing career,” in an essay in The Atlantic to explain his choice.
“He was the first African American general officer to lead an Army corps in combat and the first African American to command an entire theater of war; if confirmed, he will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department — another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure.”
To be sure, Biden said he was drawn to Austin’s experience at U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw a draw down of the U.S. troop presence, and devised and executed the military’s campaign against the Islamic State. As vice president, Biden worked with Austin at that time, was impressed by him and trusts him.
As a Black man with his level of seniority and experiences, Austin is a “unicorn” and deserves special consideration, said a person familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking. The debate over civilian control of the military, the source said, shouldn’t take place “at the expense or cost of the greater diversity conversation with a senior nomination like this.”
“If he’d just been out of the military for three more years, this wouldn’t even be a real conversation. We’d just been going straight to the confirmation process,” the person said of Austin’s waiver requirement. “If we’re really serious about broadening the aperture and adding more diversity into these senior positions, we’re going to have to get creative about where we’re pulling some of these people from for our talent pool.”
Still, objections remain. It was a controversial move when Congress waived a law prohibiting recently retired generals from serving as defense secretary fewer than seven years ― which allowed confirmation of President Donald Trump’s first choice for the post, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis.
Some Democrats, who objected then, may now have to reverse themselves to back Austin. Biden said in the The Atlantic that Austin understands the need to keep a clear distance between military and civilian rule, but he added, “Just as they did for Jim Mattis, I am asking Congress to grant a waiver.”
Though Democratic leaders predict strong support for Biden’s choice, some Democrats have expressed indecision, if not opposition to the waiver.
Senate Armed Services Committee members Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Duckworth and Elizabeth Warren, oppose a waiver for Austin. All voted against a waiver for Mattis before voting to confirm him as defense secretary.
“I have the deepest respect and admiration for General Austin and this nomination, and this nomination is exciting and historic, Blumenthal told reporters on Tuesday. “But I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military.”
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., who supported the Mattis waiver, said then that circumstances were unique and he would not do so again. But this week, his stance was looser on Austin than it had been, and he told reporters, “we have to measure his aptitude and qualities” before making any decisions on the nomination.
But beyond the civil-military concerns, Austin is also being scrutinized anew over past allegations that while he led Central Command it downplayed the threat of Islamic State militants, and also for his industry ties as a board member at Raytheon Technologies and Nucor Steel.
That Austin was selected over former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michèle Flournoy ― potentially the first female defense secretary ― has raised criticism that progressives have held their fire for Austin after attacking Flournoy’s ties to the defense industry. Flournoy was on Booz Allen Hamilton’s board and co-founded consulting firm WestExec Advisors and contractor-funded Center for a New American Security.
In an apparent effort to pressure support for Austin and nullify some of those issues, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive voice on the House Armed Services Committee, argued that lawmakers voting for a waiver for Mattis and against one for Austin, “would have a disparate racial impact.”
Khanna voted against a waiver for Mattis and has said he would vote for Austin’s waiver.
“Democrats oppose policies with disparate impact because we recognize that race matters,” he said on Twitter. “How can anyone justify voting for a different outcome for a highly qualified Black man compared to how Mattis was treated, no matter what facially neutral justification there may be?”
The Associated Press and Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.