Newly confirmed U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is followed by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley as Austin arrives to begin his first day in office at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 22, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Former General Lloyd Austin reports for duty, and a Pentagon ‘reset’

Turns out the defense secretary’s confirmation was a piece of cake. Now the hard part, deciding who’s in — and out — of the E-Ring.

When retired General Lloyd Austin was nominated by Joe Biden to be Secretary of Defense back in early December, you’d have thought it was the end of the Republic. 

Austin opponents, most of them high-profile Samuel Huntington-quoting High Sparrows of civilian-military relations, warned the President-elect that appointing the retired four-star general and former  Centcom commander was downright dangerous: it broke “a vital political norm,” sidelined civilians who were more qualified for the job (read: Michele Flournoy), and stood in the way of reestablishing “traditional national security processes.” 

As crucially, confirming Austin so soon after Marine Gen. James Mattis (the premier book-toting “adult in the room” of the Trump years) had turned in a decidedly mixed performance in the Pentagon’s E-Ring, was hardly urgent. While Austin was a patriot and a decent enough guy — as his opponents kept telling us — appointing him was a political mistake, the sword on which Biden would be impaled. There was no national emergency, no pressing civil-military crisis, no lunatic in the White House. 

Off somewhere in Delaware, Biden took the measure of his opponents and forged ahead despite their dissent, surrounding Austin with a constellation of civilians (Kathleen Hicks, Colin Kahl, Kelly Magsamen), who were just the kind of reassuring political insiders that official Washington so admires. But Biden’s Hicks-Kahl-Magsamen bid was much less a nod to civilian control of the military (he was going to appoint them anyway), than a calculation that for all of Donald Trump’s mess-of-a-presidency, the outgoing administration had shown that there was little price to pay for crossing the elites, much less a gaggle of Mattis groupies. 

Then, too, the events of January 6 reflected the nation’s true state-of-affairs: that the danger to America came not from a man who’d once worn the uniform of his country, but from a mob of Stars-and-Bars-toting insurrectionists led by a horn-and-fur-bedecked “Q-Anon Shaman.” The result was nearly palpable: within 24 hours of this embarrassment to the Republic, the votes that Biden needed to ensure Austin’s confirmation began to fall into place — aided by Austin’s reassurance that he would recuse himself from all decisions having to do with major defense contractor Raytheon, for which he served as a paid member of the board of directors for the last four years. 

In truth, the final 93-2 Senate vote in favor of Austin’s nomination was less a confirmation than a coronation — evidence that, since the most important adult-in-the-room is now in the White House, the Congress agreed that the Pentagon could use a competent manager who’s surrounded by civilian experts — instead of a praetorian guard of admiring admirals.

Within hours of Austin’s confirmation, the Pentagon was abuzz with talk of what-comes-next, including emerging betting pools on who survives the new Austin era— and who doesn’t. Austin’s first official meeting with short-lived Acting Secretary of Defense David Norquist not only marked the official handover of the building to the new administration, but also symbolized a quiet but necessary nod to Norquist who, as one senior Pentagon official told me, “did his best to throw a wrench into the Trump administration’s foot-dragging on defense issues” during the transition. “Norquist strikes a lot of people as a nerd,” this official said, “but he’s the kind of nerd the building needs. He knows the budget as well as anyone — and eventually Biden and his crew will need him.” 

Norquist, it is believed, will not be kicked to the curb but rather departed the Austin meeting with a semi-promise: that the new administration would value his contribution to their defense budget efforts over the next several months. “Norquist did his bit as a responsible public servant,” this Pentagon official says. “He held down the fort. That was important to the Biden people. It won’t be forgotten.” 

The next scheduled Austin meeting, with JCS Chairman Mark Milley, will be far less formal and likely far more difficult. If there was one thing that might have derailed the Austin nomination, it was the portrait of Milley accompanying Trump on his jaunt to St. John’s Church at Lafayette Square back in June, and his later appearance on the D.C. streets that evening — as a military helicopter hovered overhead during a Black Lives Matter protest. Milley later apologized for accompanying Trump, but his appearance raised the specter of a politicized military, and an officer who seemed anxious to prove his personal loyalty to a commander-in-chief who blithely referenced senior officers as “my generals.” That Milley will now pay a price, in spite of his effusive post-jaunt apology, is not in doubt. 

“Milley will meet with Austin and in no uncertain terms he’ll be told — ‘here’s a box of crayons, go color somewhere and don’t break anything,'” a civilian Pentagon observer told me within hours of Austin’s confirmation. “But the betting is that this will be a soft landing. When his term is up, he’ll be retired.” 

A senior retired military officer who once served with Austin reiterated the message: “Mark Milley is done, it’s only a matter of time,” he said. “His June foray with Trump was the final and last straw. He’s been trying to dig himself out of a hole since then, but it’s not going to work. There aren’t many people who will be sorry to see him go.” Milley’s early exit will not come as a surprise to the JCS Chairman, who has told colleagues that he expected his tenure would be limited once Biden became president. 

But Biden is not a person who believes in humiliating people who make mistakes. Milley will not be relieved, but retired, with all the ruffles and flourishes that traditionally mark a senior officer’s departure. The message, however, will be unmistakable: “Milley will be the Army’s Peter Pace,” as one of his fellow officers told me several weeks ago, naming the former Marine JCS Chairman who was unceremoniously retired after a single term by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2007. “His name will be a footnote in CJCS history — and he deserves it. It’s ignominious.” 

The departure of Milley, whether soft or hard, will allow the Biden team to shape a Pentagon “reset” — a needed recasting of the military’s top command. The reset, as the Pentagon observer with whom I spoke speculates, will include a “make good” to the U.S. Air Force, whose former chief of staff, now-retired Gen. David Goldfein, was in line to be JCS Chairman before Trump spitefully rejected Mattis’s recommendation that he be given the job. Milley also engaged in a quiet, but sordid campaign to derail Goldfein’s likely nomination at the time. “Milley sidelined Goldfein, and it was pretty ugly,” a senior military officer says. “He went right around Mattis and got close to Trump. It was the worst kind of insinuation. Unforgivable, in my book.”

A part of the Biden-Austin “make good” will include the likely nomination of current Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown as Milley’s replacement. “The Brown nomination rights the JCS Chairman rotation among the services,” the Pentagon civilian told me, “and rewards the Air Force. It’s their turn to be in the big chair, and it has been for a long time. But that’s only a part of it. No one gives a damn for tradition when there’s a guy like Brown in line to take the job — he’s admired and respected. And he’s an Asia-Pacific guy who served there as commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Force. His appointment will calm down the China hawks. He’s the perfect choice.” 

Of course, none of this is certain. It may be that, despite the betting on Milley’s departure, the new Biden-Austin team will, for some reason, decide to retain him. And it may well be that Biden will decide against Brown as a new JCS Chairman. But the bet that no one is taking is that the shake-up symbolized by Austin’s confirmation marks the end of the Pentagon’s transformation. As the senior military officer with whom I spoke said, “This is only the beginning.” 

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