President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Lloyd Austin, who led US troops into Baghdad in 2003 and rose to head the US Central Command, as the first African-American secretary of defense, US media reported Monday.
A veteran of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the retired four-star army general, 67, beat out the favorite for the job, former under-secretary of defense Michele Flournoy, amid pressure on Biden to nominate more minorities for positions in his cabinet.
CNN, Politico and The New York Times cited unnamed sources familiar with the decision, after Biden said earlier Monday that he had made his choice and would announce it on Friday.
Austin would require Senate confirmation to take up the post. He would also require a special waiver from the Senate due to federal law that requires military officers to wait seven years after retirement before serving as the Pentagon chief.
The rule is rooted in the view that only a civilian should serve as defense secretary.
The waiver has happened twice — most recently for General Jim Mattis in 2017, President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.
But members of the Senate agreed begrudgingly, and several said at the time that they wouldn’t want to do it again.
Middle East commander
Austin spent four decades in the army, graduating from West Point Military Academy and following a career with a wide range of assignments, from leading platoons to running logistics groups and overseeing recruiting, to senior Pentagon jobs.
In March 2003, he was the assistant division commander of the 3rd Infantry Division when it marched from Kuwait into Baghdad in the US invasion of Iraq.
From late 2003 to 2005, he was in Afghanistan commanding the Combined Joint Task Force 180, the principle US-led operation seeking to stabilize the security situation in the country.
In 2010, he was made commanding general of US forces in Iraq, and two years later became the commander of the Central Command, in charge of all Pentagon operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
That put him in charge of the fight against the Islamic State as it captured large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
During that period, he reportedly earned the trust of Biden, who was vice president at the time.
Few African Americans in command jobs
Austin would take responsibility for the 1.2 million active service members, of whom about 16 percent are Black.
But Black people serve disproportionately in the lower ranks, and few have achieved high command positions.
The issue became more clear over the past year when African-American servicemen and women expressed support for the national Black Lives Matter movement against police racism and abuse.
Former defense secretary Mark Esper said he held numerous listening sessions to make white soldiers understand what their Black colleagues felt.
Austin faces several challenges: first is the rule that the position should only be filled by civilians.
“He shouldn’t be considered for the same reason that Sec. Mattis shouldn’t have been,” said Congressman Justin Amash in a tweet.
“The law prohibits recently retired members of the Armed Forces from serving in this civilian capacity. Biden would be the second president in a row to violate this norm.”
Second are Austin’s ties to the defense industry. After retiring in 2016, he joined the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, one of the Pentagon’s largest contractors, with multi-billion dollar arms supply contracts up for review.
He also was involved with a consultant, WestExec Advisors, already the source of several senior members of the Biden administration, including secretary of state pick Antony Blinken and Avril Haines, nominee for director of national intelligence.
Flournoy was one of the firm’s founders.
Women in the defense and national security community expressed disappointment that Flournoy, who had stellar qualifications for the job and would have been the first-ever female defense secretary, was bypassed.
“Nothing but respect for Lloyd Austin, but picking another 4 star so recently retired that he needs a congressional waiver sends a terrible message,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor formerly with the Department of Defense.