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10 questions Congress must ask sec def candidate Austin this week

Where does he stand on China, Afghanistan, cronyism in the Pentagon, and America's big footprint? We want to know.

Analysis | Washington Politics

On Tuesday, exactly one day before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Senate will hold a hearing on the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, a recently-retired general who played significant leadership roles in the Iraq War and oversaw Centcom, a major command that encompasses the Middle East and all of the major U.S. war theaters of the past two decades.

If confirmed, Austin would be the first African American to hold the top post in the Pentagon, but since he retired from the military less than seven years ago in 2016, Congress would have to grant him a waiver to serve in what is a civilian role. The idea of granting a waiver twice in four years — former General James Mattis had to have clearance before he took over the position in the Trump administration — doesn’t sit well with some Senators, though Austin is likely to get it anyway, according to reports. The House will begin hearings on the waiver on Jan. 21.

In addition to the waiver issue, Austin has been criticized for his close ties to the defense industry. After retirement, Austin joined the board of United Technologies Corp., earning $1.4 million in 2016 alone, and set up his own consulting firm. In early 2020, when UCI merged with Raytheon, one of the top five defense contractors in the world, he got a seat on its board of directors. Raytheon earned $16 billion in contracts from Washington in 2019, and has played a major role in selling weapons to the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen.

Many of his positions on a wide variety of national security and foreign policy issues have yet to be known. There is some indication, as the Quincy Institute’s Mark Perry has written, that he publicly supports “strategic patience,” and was angered by the initial Saudi intervention in Yemen in 2015, which the United States later supported, and still does, at least materially. That emphasis on patience, particularly in regards to China, could end up being a mark against him, depending on whether a more hawkish posture ends up prevailing in the new administration. 

So the questions Austin is asked at his upcoming hearings are key to understanding what kind of defense secretary he will be: will he endeavor to uphold the status quo or help pull U.S. national security back from 20 years of a counterproductive militarized strategy overseas? QI poses these 10 questions to tease the answer out:

1) The United States has somewhere around 200,000 service members stationed at some 800 bases in at least 70 countries overseas. This approach could perhaps go on for some time longer, but it can't go on forever. Under what conditions could Washington bring home a significant portion of its troops, even if they are not engaged in combat?

2) Do you consider China to pose an existential threat to the United States? If not, how do you think the United States and China can keep themselves from getting locked into an intense, cold war-style arms race and potentially armed conflict?

3) Do you support the repeal of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force passed after 9/11 and/or the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Force in Iraq? Would you favor replacing either with specific and targeted authorities for each distinct theater of combat U.S. forces are engaged in lethal combat? If not, why not?

4) The Pentagon has recognized that climate chaos poses a serious national security risk to U.S. forces and allies. At the same time, the U.S. military is the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. Do you support a reduction in the global role of the U.S. military as part of an international effort to combat climate change?

5) The United States is currently engaged in an enormous modernization of its nuclear strike force. Do you support this effort?  If so, please explain what it will accomplish and why it is necessary. 

6) In recent months, Pyongyang has unveiled what appeared to be the country’s largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile as well as a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. Senior Pentagon officials have stated on the record that removing North Korea's nuclear weapons, or denuclearization, would require a ground invasion. How should the United States approach this issue in a way that does not lead to war? 

7) There’s concern that the revolving door culture has created a cozy relationship between top defense contractors and senior officials, resulting in programs and budgets that favor special interests rather than what’s best for the security of the country. What will you do to ensure that Pentagon officials are not working directly on programs that promote the business of a former private sector employer, and enforce cooling off periods for ex-officials lobbying the Pentagon on behalf of a new employer?

8) Under the current U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States should be removing all of its remaining troops from that country by May 1 of this year. Do you agree that it is time to leave Afghanistan? What do you think of suggestions that the U.S. leave behind a “small counterterrorism force” indefinitely?

9) The $740 billion outlays in the recently passed NDAA imposes a $4,711 cost per tax filer, of which roughly 50 percent goes to defense contractors. Could you explain to taxpayers how such a high portion of their tax bill being allocated to the defense budget benefits them in this time of economic insecurity and high unemployment?

10)  A recent article on your political beliefs speculated that you are an advocate for (as they described it) "strategic patience." Is this the case, and if so could you expand on your beliefs?

Contributing: Lora Lumpe, Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Wertheim, Jessica Lee, Mark Perry, Adam Weinstein, and Eli Clifton.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. General Lloyd Austin, nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to be his Secretary of Defense, speaks virtually with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY, not pictured) at the Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 15, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago/File Photo
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