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Biden bypasses Flournoy, taps General Austin for defense secretary

Critics wonder whether putting another retired military officer in charge — and one with corporate ties — is such a good move.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

WASHINGTON -- The word spread like wildfire across social media Monday night: President-elect Joe Biden would be tapping long-shot candidate and retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for his secretary of defense, and could be making a formal announcement as soon as Tuesday.

This would seemingly mark the end of a Washington court drama in which civilian Pentagon insider Michele Flournoy went from a virtual shoo-in as the first woman defense secretary to being passed over for a military officer who, if confirmed, would be the first African American defense secretary.

The Austin pick was reported by both Politico and the Associated Press, which confirmed the news with three and four sources respectively.

Austin would have to get a waiver from Congress to qualify. The National Security Act of 1947 required a prospective secretary to wait 10 years after ending active duty as a commissioned officer. It was later shortened to seven years. This would only be the third time a waiver was requested — the first being for Gen. George Marshall in 1950, the second for Gen. James Mattis when he was nominated to be President Trump’s first defense secretary in 2017, four years after leaving the military. (He also sat on a corporate board — General Dynamics — in the intervening years.)

Austin, 67, retired from the Army in 2016 as a four-star and head of U.S. Central Command, probably the most important command today, given that its area of responsibility stretches from Northeast Africa across the Middle East to Central and South Asia — virtually every place the United States had been at war and in many regards, still is, for the last two decades. 

Previously, Austin was vice chief of staff for the Army and before that, commanding general of U.S. Forces–Iraq during the Obama-Biden administration. He also served as commander of the Multi-National Corps–Iraq, succeeding Gen. Ray Odierno, during the height of the insurgency in 2008.

He currently serves as a paid board member for Raytheon, which is consistently among the world’s top five defense contractors and among the top companies receiving U.S. federal contracts each year. In 2017, its arms sales exceeded $23 billion and its profits $2 billion dollars. In 2019, Raytheon was the fifth biggest government contractor with $15 billion in obligations, according to Bloomberg News. Coincidentally, outgoing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent years as Raytheon’s top weapons lobbyist before joining the Trump administration in 2019.

Aside from his corporate baggage, the idea that yet another general would be heading the DoD was not well received in even some establishment national security circles Monday night. 

While former General (and drug czar) Barry McCaffrey tweeted that Austin’s pick was “very good news for national security” because he is “a towering figure in Armed Forces. Enormous global experience. Joint Staff and Army staff Pentagon. Very easy to deal with. Loved by the military. Silver Star Valor. West Point. MA Auburn. MBA,” others, like Georgetown University professor Rosa Brooks, who served in the Obama administration, weren’t as sanguine.

“From a civil-military relations perspective, this seems like a terrible idea,” she tweeted (Brooks was a big backer of Flournoy). She pointed to Trump’s other early generals: Gen. John Kelly, selected first to head the Department of Homeland Security, later Trump’s chief of staff; and retired General Mike Flynn, who was Trump’s first national security adviser. Retired Gen. H.R. McMaster took over the national security adviser job later in 2017. “Lots of damage there...putting a recently retired 4 star, no matter how wonderful, into the top civilian DoD position sends the worst possible message.”

Back during Trump’s transition period, the number of generals he was tapping for the cabinet was raising alarms, though at the time many, like Brooks, thought Trump perhaps needed them. In late December 2016, this writer penned a piece about the yawning civilian-military divide and why the American founders wanted the powers of the executive branch, Congress — and military — diluted. The mix of civilian and military control over defense policy was especially important.

“[The country] is not at risk of a military coup; it is what I call the ‘velvet militarization’ of American foreign and national security policy over the next four years,” wrote Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service, at the time.

Military officers, he said, “view the world differently,” in the “structured, hierarchical, strategic and operational way” that “focuses on the uses of military force.”

On specific policy, Austin is pretty much a closed book, a soldier’s-soldier. The New York Times’ write up of his reported nomination Monday suggested that Austin “is known as a strong battlefield commander” who cracked the glass ceiling as a Black man among all-white brass. Supporters say “he broke through that barrier because of his intellect, his command experience and the mentorship of a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who plucked him to run the staff of the Joint Chiefs’ office.”

While his specific views about the current military policies in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and places like Somalia, from which Trump just announced a troop withdrawal, are virtually unknown, it will be interesting to see how progressive critics and Pentagon watchdogs, who had opposed Flournoy due to her own ties to the defense industry, will react to another entrenched military figure, also with corporate links, taking that position. So far, there’s a bit of skepticism.

“Throughout the entire transition process, I have been disappointed that the only people mentioned for the top Pentagon post have deep ties to the defense industry,” said Dan Grazier, a combat veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now an analyst for the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information.

“This is a well-trodden path in Washington that has resulted in a great deal of wasted money, failed acquisition programs, and wars that never end. It's about time we try something else.”

President Barack Obama sits next to Commander of Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin III during a briefing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing
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