Biden faces resistance to surprise choice of defence secretary

Questions over suitability of Lloyd Austin, who would be first African-American in role

Joe Biden's intention to nominate Lloyd Austin as defence secretary – which would make him the first African-American to serve in the role – has run into early opposition from some lawmakers who questioned his suitability for the job.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle expressed their concern over the pick, a day after it was first reported by Politico, and experts warned against bucking the US tradition of civilian leadership at the Pentagon.

Gen Austin, a four-star general, retired from active military service only four year ago, which would put him at odds a US law that stipulates the defence secretary must be out of uniform for at least seven years. Congress would need to grant him a waiver, which it has done only twice before in 70 years – including for Jim Mattis, the first US defence secretary nominated by Donald Trump.

Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic member of Congress and former Pentagon official, tweeted she deeply respected Gen Austin but that choosing a recently retired general to serve in a role intended for a civilian “feels off”.


Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate armed services committee, said at the time Gen Mattis was confirmed that an exception should be made "no more than once in a generation".

Kori Schake, an expert in civil-military relations at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, said it would be "a mistake" for Congress to grant the waiver again. "Once is an exception, two . . . are a trend."

Another point of contention is Gen Austin's relative lack of experience in Asia, at a time when the US's military rivalry with China is growing. He spent the better part of his 40 years of military service in the Middle East and has commanded ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

‘Forever wars’

Both the Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration have said they are keen to end the US’s so-called “forever wars” and continue to bring back troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, while they see China’s growing military ambitions as an increasing threat to the US.

Mike Gallagher, a Republican member of Congress, wrote on Twitter that Gen Austin was a “patriot”, but added that “this is not the pick if you believe China is an urgent threat”.

Some serving and former US defence officials were also lukewarm about the appointment. One former defence official said Gen Austin “is a fine gent and would be a good army secretary” – suggesting he had been over-promoted.

But one serving defence official said it was “important and groundbreaking” to appoint an African-American to lead the Pentagon for the first time.

African-Americans comprise nearly one in five of the US military’s enlisted ranks, but less than one in 10 of its officers. Mr Biden has vowed to appoint a diverse cabinet.

Mr Biden’s decision to nominate Gen Austin confounded many analysts who had expected the president-elect to select Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official who would have been the first female defence secretary.

“It’s a complicated choice: Biden has gone for comfort over expertise,” a person familiar with the decision told the Financial Times. “He’s travelled with Biden extensively; Biden likes him.”

Gen Austin may also encounter resistance from progressive quarters over his ties to the defence industry. He joined the board of Raytheon Technologies, the aerospace and defence company, after his retirement from the military. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020