By Terrance Turner
Dec. 8, 2020 (UPDATED Jan. 8, 2021)
UPDATE (Jan. 22): Today, Gen. Lloyd Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, making him the first Black Secretary of Defense in the nation’s history. He obtained the necessary waiver needed for him to be confirmed.
On Jan. 8, President-Elect Joe Biden introduced members of his health care team; they included the first-ever Latino nominee for Health & Human Services Secretary (Xavier Becerra) and the request that Dr. Anthony Fauci become Chief Medical Adviser. But he’s also making headlines with a historic choice for Secretary of Defense: Biden has nominated retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd Austin. If confirmed, Austin would become the first Black person ever to lead the Department of Defense.
Austin, 67, graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1975. He served 41 years in uniform. Gen. Austin was commander in Baghdad of the Multinational Corps-Iraq in 2008. He returned to lead U.S. troops from 2010-2011, according to the Associated Press (source of the above photo). Austin also served as the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army in 2012. (That’s the No. 2 ranking position.) There, he fashioned and implemented a U.S. military strategy to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He is the first Black general to command an Army division in combat and the first to oversee an entire theater of operations, per Politico.
Austin is also a civilian. By law, a leader of the Defense Dept. must have at lest seven years distance between that position and his military service. Austin retired in 2016 and thus has only four. He would require a waiver to serve. This has aroused concerns in some Democratic legislators — and rather blunt, pejorative criticism from pundits like The Atlantic‘s Eliot A. Cohen and the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin. But Gen. James Mattis served in the same position with a waiver from 2017 to 2019. And the objection to Austin’s appointment and not Mattis’s presents an optics problem:
Biden defended his choice in an op-ed in The Atlantic: “General Austin got the job done. He played a crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the theater of war,” Biden wrote. “In his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency. He is a true and tested soldier and leader. I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot.”