Civilian-military concerns trail Biden's defense secretary pick

Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, canter, commander of U.S. Central Command, addresses the audience during the Resolute Support change of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 2, 2016. 

Lloyd J. Austin III, visits Kabul as commander of U.S. Central Command in March, 2016. (Department of Defense photo by Myles Cullen)

The Senate will need to grant an exception to Lloyd Austin, the retired four star Army general tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as secretary of defense, if he's to win confirmation because of his relatively recent exit from the military. Some lawmakers are concerned whether such an appointment moves the military away from civilian control, although a waiver and confirmation appear likely.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Jan. 12, some Democrats made it clear during the hearing that they would vote down a legal exception for Austin, who has only been retired for four years, but would consider his nomination.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all indicated they would consider Austin’s nomination on the merits. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) also expressed displeasure with the move to grant a waiver.

Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said that another exception to statute that requires military officers be at least seven years removed from their service would set a dangerous precedent that moves the military further away from being under civilian control.

“I think that the civilian side of the Department of Defense has lost both influence and respect over the last several years,” Cohn told senators during a Jan. 12 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on civilian control of the armed forces.

Cohn said the trend impacts the department’s need for diverse experiences and the need for political aptitude in being able to think about national security in policy terms rather than practical military terms.

“The military side is well represented in the debates internal to the department. What’s happening now is that the civilian side is less well-represented and that creates an imbalance, and I think produces worse policy,” she said.

In 2017, the Senate voted to 81-17 to grant now former defense secretary Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first pick, a waiver.

The hearing teed up Austin's nomination hearing, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 19.

Austin would be the first Black American defense secretary.

Austin released a video on Twitter noting that he was the first African-American to hold offices across the Army’s senior ranks, from commanding an infantry division and Army corps in combat to being the Army chief of staff and commander of U.S. Central Command.

“There is kind of a sad commentary here and that is it shouldn’t have taken this long for us to get here. There should’ve been someone who preceded me,” Austin said in the video, adding that his goal, if confirmed, is to “not be the last” and “set those conditions in place” to ensure that.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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