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The Complicated Case for and Against General Lloyd Austin III

Words: Lindsay M. Chervinsky
Pictures: Alev Takil

On December 8, President-Elect Joseph Biden announced he was nominating General Lloyd Austin III as his pick for Secretary of Defense. Immediately the pundits churned out articles in favor or against this choice, but most observers are a bit more undecided — myself included. 

There are many excellent reasons for Biden to choose Austin. He is extremely well-qualified, almost universally respected, and has a track record of breaking barriers. He is only the sixth Black person to reach a four-star rank (200 individuals have attained four-stars in US history), and the first Black man to command an entire theater of war. These achievements should not be overlooked, as promotion up through the officer ranks has been notoriously difficult for people of color, who operate under increased scrutiny as they are often the only minority in the room. 

As a result, Austin’s appointment would be an important step. Systemic racism in the military is a huge issue and the lack of diversity in the officer corps is a national security threat. In 2019, white soldiers made up 60.4% the US population and about 65% of the enlisted troops, but almost 90% of general or flag officers. The military cannot recruit and promote the best talent unless it considers all Americans. Additionally, recent studies have revealed increasing rates of white supremacy and extremism among active-duty troops.

Diversity in the officer corps is essential to the future of the military. But symbolic choices aren’t just about optics, they often help facilitate reform and change. People cannot aspire to new positions without seeing others that look like them in positions of authority. I hope Austin can help bring this reform to the armed services.

Biden may have also selected Austin because of his willingness to explore all forms of foreign policy. Biden and Austin worked together to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq and to hand over the reins to civilian government. All reports suggest that Austin treats diplomats and military officials with the same respect, and he has demonstrated support and investment in non-military solutions to international problems. This position is in lock-step with Biden’s foreign policy: the best way to keep our troops safe is to make sure they aren’t the only diplomatic tool and the best foreign policy is one that explores all options.

Past examples have demonstrated that too much comradery between the Secretary of Defense and the acting military can lead to group-think or exacerbate civil-military tensions.

Finally, the most important criteria for a cabinet secretary is their relationship with the president and their ability to work together. American history is riddled with countless examples of failed cabinets that largely stem from poor working relationships between the president and their secretaries. Conversely, the best cabinets — Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR come to mind as examples — are built on trust and respect. Biden’s article in The Atlantic, in which he voiced his support for Austin, demonstrates that they have that rapport. Presidents deserve to have cabinet secretaries with whom they want to work.

On the other hand, there are many reasons why Biden should have appointed someone else. The National Security Act of 1947 requires that the Secretary of Defense be seven years removed from active duty (the law originally required 10 years and was amended to 7 years in 2008). I had hoped Biden would appoint someone who wouldn’t need a congressional waiver to serve. 

Congress has twice approved waivers since the passage of the bill in 1947: Harry S. Truman requested a waiver for George Marshall and President Donald Trump requested a waiver for Jim Mattis. Many Senators supported the waiver for Mattis because they respected his credentials, and they hoped that he would serve as an “adult in the room” during an unpredictable and potentially dangerous Trump presidency.

There is no doubt Austin is qualified for this position. He is a once-in-a-generation talent. If Mattis was deserving of a waiver, Austin is too. Period. Many previous supporters of the waiver have suggested that Biden will be a safe president, so the waiver isn’t necessary. That argument feels misguided and frankly incredibly unfair. Why should we lower the standards for Trump and raise them for a competent president?

But the National Security Act requires the waiver for a reason. Protecting civilian authority over the military is a central tenet of our government and one that most presidents, starting with George Washington, have carefully defended. While Austin is technically a civilian, he isn’t far removed from high military command. There aren’t too many four-star generals, so many of Austin’s old colleagues will still be in the room. It might be hard for him to disagree with former friends and colleagues, especially if Biden pushes for military reform or a reduction in expenses.

Past examples have demonstrated that too much comradery between the Secretary of Defense and the acting military can lead to group-think or exacerbate civil-military tensions. For example, Marshall allowed a civilian-military crisis to fester between President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, the commanding officer of American troops in Korea. Marshall struggled to reprimand MacArthur — his former colleague and friend. Mattis’s appointment again threatened civilian control over the military, as he frequently sided with his former military buddies while Trump hollowed out civilian positions at the Pentagon. 

Biden’s presidency represents an opportunity to restore the countless norms under attack from the Trump administration, and indeed Biden campaigned on the promise to restore normalcy and trust in US government institutions. The best way to defend these norms is to return to observing them and then boost future protections. Yet, by asking for another waiver so soon after Trump, Biden threatens to make the waiver the new norm. If Congress grants the waiver, future presidents may feel less pressure to appoint a Secretary of Defense that fulfills the requirements of the National Security Act.

This choice also lands several Senate Democrats in a tough spot. In early 2017, some Democrats voted against the waiver for Mattis, not because they objected to his credentials per se, but because they worried about civilian control over the military. If they vote for the waiver now, that choice was clearly political, rather than principled. Biden is essentially forcing several of his colleagues to support the waiver and face charges of hypocrisy, or vote against his nominee.

Given these concerns about Austin’s nomination, I can’t help but wonder why Biden didn’t select a different, very talented candidate. 

That said, I’m glad I don’t have to cast a vote in the Senate in favor or against Austin’s nomination. Austin could be a brilliant Secretary of Defense or his nomination could undermine the Biden administration from day one. I see the strength of both arguments, but I think hindsight will cast the final determination.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, PhD is a presidential historian and Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution (2020) and can be found on Twitter @lmchervinsky.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

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