The president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, made official on Wednesday his selection to lead the Pentagon from January, a nominee that has caused discomfort among Democrats in Congress because he does not fit the legal parameters to occupy that position.
Retired General Lloyd Austin’s nomination is as historic – he would be America’s first African-American secretary of defense – as it is controversial, and Biden’s party did not receive it with all the enthusiasm the president-elect hoped for.
“He’s the right person for this job, at the right time,” Biden said at the Austin nomination event in Wilmington, Delaware.
The core of the controversy is in a US law enacted in 1947 and amended in 2008, according to which it takes at least seven years for retired military personnel to occupy the post of Secretary of Defense.
Austin has only been a civilian for four years, so to join Biden’s cabinet, he would need not only the approval of the Senate, but the approval of an exception by both houses of Congress that allows him to circumvent the law.
“I would not ask for this exception if I did not believe that this moment in history demands it,” said the president-elect.
Both Biden and Austin, who accompanied him at the event, expressed their respect for the principle that the Pentagon should be led by civilians, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff is made up of soldiers who also advise the president.
“I come into this role as a civilian leader, of course with military experience, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the wisdom that our military must be controlled by civilians,” said Austin, 67.
The presentation ceremony was, first and foremost, an argument in favor of granting that exception to Austin, despite the fact that that pass has only been granted to two Defense incumbents since the middle of the last century.
The last to receive it was James Mattis, the first secretary of defense in the government of current president, Donald Trump, in 2017, and for many legislators, to ignore that legal requirement twice in four years is too much to ask.
“I will not support the exception” for Austin, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday.
At least three other Democratic senators – Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal and Jon Tester – have also expressed their refusal to endorse an exception for the Biden nominee, arguing that they did not do so for Mattis either and it would not be coherent to change positions now.
Seventeen senators from both parties voted against the exception for Mattis in 2017, while in the Lower House 151 congressmen opposed it, without preventing it from finally being granted.
Democrats will have a narrow majority in the Lower House as of January, and although they could control the Senate if they win two seats that are up for grabs in the state of Georgia, that possible minority would be tiny, with half the House in hands. Republicans.
However, it is not yet clear to what extent the opposition will go to the exception for Austin, and it is possible that Biden will be leaning on the opposition party to carry it out.
Doubts about your experience
In addition to his recent incorporation into civilian life, the Biden nominee has raised doubts by the fact that most of his experience as a high-ranking military man is focused on the Middle East, although he has held lesser positions in Europe.
At a time when the Pentagon is increasingly thinking about relations with China, Russia and new challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the climate crisis, some experts, mostly Republicans, have expressed concern about the profile from Austin.
Perhaps that is why both Biden and Austin made “rebuilding” America’s traditional alliances in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific a priority, not to mention the Middle East.
But Austin’s experience as head of Central Command, in charge of Middle East operations, would certainly be helpful in deciding what to do in countries where the United States still has troops deployed, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Against “eternal wars”
“We have to end eternal wars, and make sure that the use of force is the last tool we can turn to,” Biden stressed.
When Biden comes to power in January – and if Trump follows through on his withdrawal plans – there will only be 2,500 US troops left in Afghanistan and another 2,500 in Iraq, and the new president will have to decide how he manages that smaller contingent.
According to The Washington Post, the main reason Biden has chosen Austin is that retired general’s tendency to implement orders rather than trying to impose his own priorities.
That profile would open the way for greater power from the White House, and from other members of Biden’s team such as his national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his nominee as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to design defense policy and steps to take. continue in countries like Afghanistan.