Biden's CENTCOM pick to head Pentagon raises concern over civilian leadership

Gen. Lloyd Austin has emerged as the president-elect's likely pick over former Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy.

al-monitor Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of US Central Command, prepares to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the ongoing US military operations to counter the Islamic State during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill Sept. 16, 2015, in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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lloyd austin, us politics, us military, centcom, cabinet, pentagon, joe biden

Dec 8, 2020

US President-elect Joe Biden is set to name retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the former head of US Central Command, to oversee the Pentagon, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to Al-Monitor.

Austin, who formerly commanded all US forces in the Middle East during the Barack Obama administration, would be the first Black defense secretary in US history.

His likely selection, first reported by Politico and confirmed by multiple news outlets, surprised some former Defense Department and national security officials working with the Biden-Harris transition team. Austin retired from the US military less than five years ago, meaning he will need a waiver from Congress to head the Defense Department, which is typically run by a civilian official.

Austin’s last-minute prospect has support among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including chairperson Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). His pick comes two weeks after Biden was expected to name Michele Flournoy — the Pentagon’s former top policy official under the Obama administration — to lead the department.

Flournoy had support among a number of Democrats on the Hill into this week. On Monday House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters that she remained the most qualified choice for defense secretary.

As CENTCOM commander, Austin oversaw the first years of the US-led campaign against the Islamic State. He previously commanded the Multi-National Corps-Iraq and the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in combat operations in Iraq and served as Army chief of staff.

Austin’s command came under scrutiny but was later cleared by an inspector general investigation in 2017 over whether CENTCOM had altered intelligence about the strength of the Islamic State. His command also drew some criticism for the failed Syrian train-and-equip program, which was headed by then-SOCOM commander Gen. Mike Nagata.

Austin’s nomination is likely to raise concerns on Capitol Hill about civilian leadership of the military, though it is not yet clear how much pushback may arise. President Donald Trump’s 2017 appointment of retired US Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to lead the Pentagon led Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-WA) to say approval of Mattis’ waiver should be a once-in-a-generation exception. Mattis was only the second retired general to require a waver to head the Defense Department.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), who was involved in the Syrian train-and-equip program in her time at the Pentagon, praised Austin but criticized Biden’s decision to select another former general.

“I have deep respect for Gen. Lloyd Austin. We worked together when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the Army, and when he was the CENTCOM commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off,” she wrote.

“I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.”

Flournoy’s prospective appointment raised objections among some progressive lawmakers and activists due to her ties to the defense industry. Flournoy served on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton and along with Biden’s secretary of state pick Antony Blinken co-founded WestExec, which has reportedly advised at least one top defense contractor.

The name of former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who previously served as Pentagon general counsel, was also in the mix, though his legal oversight of the military’s drone campaign and seat on the board at Lockheed Martin drew scrutiny among progressives.

Austin currently sits on the board of Raytheon, a top weapons manufacturer for the military.

His selection also comes at a time when the overall US strategy is shifting away from the Middle East and toward countering China and Russia’s military and economic ambitions. Like other combatant commands, CENTCOM has faced review for potential cutbacks amid a shift to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

Biden said Monday that he would name his pick for defense secretary on Friday.

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