Inside Washington

Analysis: Biden’s defence pick threatens to continue Trump-era norm-busting

Democrats have spent four years lamenting Donald Trump’s disrespect for vital traditions – and now Joe Biden is disregarding another one

Thursday 10 December 2020 16:46

Wednesday might be remembered as a momentous day in US history. But not necessarily for a good reason.

President-elect Joe Biden formally introduced his nominee for defense secretary, one of the “big four” cabinet posts: Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general who was US Central Command chief under the Obama administration.

But the nomination has become among the most controversial Mr Biden has made so far. One might wonder: But he’s a former general, what’s the problem?

According to some lawmakers and national security officials, a lot.

There is a centuries-old tradition in the United States that civilians run the military, the idea being that those who do not pull triggers oversee those who do – and the non-trigger-pullers finalise the options the Pentagon takes to the commander in chief.

This is based on a concern that retired general officers who have been in the military for most of their adult lives and likely seen combat, once they have returned to civilian life, are merely military men in business suits. The fear is the options taken to a president would lean too heavily on using military force.

Mr Biden has a history of supporting US armed conflicts, making this worry real and casting a cloud over the Lloyd nomination.

Given he has been out of the military only four years rather than the legally required seven, Congress would have to grant the nominee a waiver to take up the post. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and former army helicopter pilot, said on Wednesday she cannot support it.

James “Mad Dog” Mattis received a waiver four years ago when Donald Trump nominated the retired Marine Corps general to be defense secretary. But these exceptions were once considered difficult to obtain, and the concept of a retired military man in charge of the entire Pentagon a step too far.

No more. 

“The actual proposition Biden is advancing is that presidents should be able to pick the person they feel is the best candidate for the job and the Senate should confirm qualified candidates and securing waivers should be ordinary, not extraordinary,” according to Susan Hennessey, a former US intelligence community lawyer.

“It isn't a crazy position to take. (I don't agree with it, but there are reasonable arguments.) But we (and Congress) should be clear-eyed about the choice being made, which is not a vote to grant one waiver for one person,” says the Lawfare blog executive editor and Brookings Institution analyst, “but instead an agreement to fundamentally alter a norm.”

Some Democrats feel conflicted on the matter, and rightfully so.

They have just spent four years wringing their hands ad nauseum each time Mr Trump obliterated a longstanding Washington norm or tradition. And now Mr Biden hands them another problem before he’s even taken office? 

Some are finding creative ways to support Mr Austin’s waiver after voting against Mr Mattis.

“I will say that one of the biggest reasons for my no vote four years ago was … we didn't have the opportunity to have Secretary Mattis at that time testify before us,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said. 

The Biden transition team has told the panel they will make Mr Austin, who is promising he is now “civilian Lloyd Austin” who has a “reverence” for a civilian controlled military, available for a hearing before that chamber takes up the waiver.  

“We made the request,” Mr Smith said. “It was a reasonable request.”

But after all four years of hand-wringing, is following Mr Trump’s penchant for norms-busting really reasonable? 

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