Biden defends Pentagon nominee as ‘uniquely qualified’ as he asks Congress to grant waiver for former general

Democrats are split on whether to grant second waiver in four years for a retired general to become SecDef as civilian control of military is in jeopardy

John T. Bennett
Wednesday 09 December 2020 20:26
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President-elect Joe Biden asked Congress to grant its second waiver in four years for a retired general to become defense secretary, calling Lloyd Austin “uniquely qualified” for the job amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Biden hailed the “sheer determination” and “skill” the former US Central Command chief, a Black man, showed in “breaking down barriers and blazing trails” as an Army officer. He described the former soldier’s diplomatic skills and said they share the same philosophy of using military force as a “last resort.” But Mr Austin’s nomination faces challenges.

Existing law requires retired generals be out of uniform for seven years before serving as the Pentagon’s top civilian official. Some Democrats already are raising concerns that the nomination of Mr Austin, a civilian for just four years, keeping the US tradition of civilians controlling the military.

Mr Biden promised that Mr Austin would ensure that military policy is  “accountable to the American people,” contending “civilian control … has been stressed the last four years.”

Yet, Donald Trump worked to keep America out of foreign conflicts. The worry about civilian control of the Pentagon is to prevent general officers from presenting presidents options that lean too heavily on unleashing military force.

Congress will have to be convinced Mr Austin is not a general in a business suit. He tried starting to do just that on Wednesday.

“When I hung up my uniform for the last time, I went from being General Llyod Austin to civilian Llyod Austin,” the nominee said. “It is an important distinction and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity.”

“I come to this role as a civilian leader, with military experience to be sure,” Mr Austin said, promising a “reverence” for civilian control of our military."

“I come to this new role as a civilian leader with military experience to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military,” Mr Austin said.

The president-elect said he chose his defense secretary nominee after working with him while he was vice president and Austin was still on active duty.

“This was not a post he sought,” Mr Biden said, “but I sought him.”

Mr Trump successfully obtained from Congress a waiver when he nominated retired Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for the same post. Some Democrats, raising civilian control concerns over a man known as a general’s general, voted to block that waiver.

They already are finding rationales, however, for support Mr Austin’s nomination.

“I'm not going to prejudge what my colleagues are going to conclude," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith told MSNBC on Tuesday. “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.”

The Biden transition team intends to let Mr Austin testify before the House panel before the chamber votes on a waiver measure.

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

Others are not.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot, said she “will not support the waiver” even though she believes the retired four-star general is qualified to lead the Defense Department.

Still, “I expect the waiver to pass,” she said. “I think he’ll be an excellent secretary of defense.”

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