Austin Pick Thrusts Pentagon Into Identity-Politics Debate
His confirmation would be historic. But for whom?
Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, retired general Lloyd Austin, has in the past few weeks become an identity-politics totem.
While some have hailed the selection of the former U.S. Central Command commander, who would become if confirmed the the first Black leader to hold the office, others are disappointed that the Pentagon will be led by yet another man. Some progressives, meanwhile, are furious at the choice of a recently retired general officer.
And that’s only the Democratic reaction to his nomination.
Michèle Flournoy, DOD’s top policy leader under Obama, had long been seen as a lock. But as Biden’s cabinet began to take shape, some Congressional Black Caucus members began to urge Biden to choose a Black defense secretary. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a close ally of Biden’s, expressed public disappointment in November that Biden had not chosen more Black figures to fill top positions.
As weeks went by and Flournoy still had not been named — and Austin’s name was publicly floated as a contender — prominent women in national security began to campaign for her to get the job. When news broke Monday of Austin’s selection, there was an outcry from women who had worked to help elect Biden and celebration from Congressional Black Caucus members.
“Historic and significant,” tweeted Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., a member of the caucus and the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Lloyd Austin is top flight and he's the right choice to lead our civilian & military personnel at the Pentagon.”
“That sound you hear is the dejected silence of women realizing the bar they have to overcome to achieve their ambitions is (once again) higher than men will admit,” tweeted Katrina Mulligan, the managing director for national security at the Center for American Progress.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, there’s another problem: Austin’s status as an only-recently-retired general. He retired in 2016, making him ineligible by law to fill the role until 2023. Congress created a waiver to allow President Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, to fill the post; repeating the feat is likely to be a much dicier political proposition. And progressive groups, who opposed Flournoy over her ties to the defense industry and past support for the war in Afghanistan, are likely to be equally piqued by Austin’s role as CENTCOM commander — and, more recently, as a Raytheon board member.
The debate over the intersection of Austin’s various identities — Black, male, uniformed — has put the Pentagon at the epicenter of the national Democratic party’s delicately orchestrated — and occasionally strained — efforts to promote diversity, whether it be in congressional leadership or presidential cabinet positions. Biden has vowed to select a cabinet that “looks like America.” But keeping a diverse cast of constituency groups with diverse priorities happy has proved a balancing act within a party historically sensitive to the politics of identity, particularly following a presidential victory largely attributed to women and minority voters. Each new pick from Biden has brought inevitable cheers and inescapable disappointments.
The choice of Austin over Flournoy has exposed the fragile underbelly of the Democrats' push for diversity: the risk of pitting one group against another. And for some women it will offer a painful reminder of another, higher-profile contest 12 years ago, when Democratic voters chose Barack Obama over the favorite, Hillary Clinton, as the party's presidential nominee.
In the meantime, Austin himself has remained something of a cutout figure in the public debate.
“The pressure is coming from the fact that many want to see these nominees reflect the diversity of the country as a whole v. a need to pick well-qualified individuals,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Doing both, he said, “is very doable.”
“But sometimes the personalities are getting lost in the broader debate about race and gender,” Manley said.
Biden, in a piece published in The Atlantic on Tuesday afternoon, praised Austin’s “barrier-breaking career.”
“He was the first African American general officer to lead an Army corps in combat and the first African American to command an entire theater of war; if confirmed, he will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department—another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure,” the president-elect wrote. “[T]he next secretary of defense will have to make sure that our armed forces reflect and promote the full diversity of our nation. Austin will bring to the job not only his personal experience, but the stories of the countless young people he has mentored.”
The advocacy surrounding Austin’s nomination puts the Pentagon in an unusual if inevitable position, said Manley and other close watchers of past confirmations. Not only has the Democratic party worked at a national level to emphasize its diversity bonafides, the Defense Department in particular has come under close scrutiny in recent years. Roughly 43 percent of the military are people of color, but Pentagon leadership remains overwhelmingly white and male.
“While it’s true that I haven’t seen this dynamic play out at the Department of Defense yet, it’s also true that it’s not surprising given where we as a party are right now — as we struggle to define our diversity,” Manley said. “It goes with the territory in this day and age: If we as a party are going to stay true to our principles, we simply have got to do a better job of picking a more diverse cabinet as a whole.”
To be sure, Austin has earned plenty of praise for his military record. Biden praised his coolness under pressure and his statesmanship. As CENTCOM commander, he oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which was carried out against his recommendation and would later be blamed for the emergence of ISIS’s physical caliphate. He went on to become one of the key architects of the U.S. strategy to defeat the group. A behind-the-scenes leader, Austin has eschewed the kind of public and press interactions that many other general officers embrace as part of the job.
In practical terms, it is likely to be Austin’s status as a recently-retired general that poses the biggest challenge to his confirmation.
Although only the Senate will vote on his confirmation, both chambers will first have to vote on whether to give him a waiver to serve. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., called him “a patriot” but raised concerns about his recent retirement. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former Pentagon official, praised his “incredible career” before echoing the point.
“And after the last 4 years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced,” Slotkin wrote. “Gen. Austin has had an incredible career––but 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.”
Only 36 House Democrats voted for the Mattis waiver in 2017. Still, Austin appears likely to get the support he needs in the Democratic-controlled House.
"By all accounts he is a ground-breaking, trail-blazing four-star general who dedicated his life to protecting and serving the freedoms that the American people hold dear,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffires, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus told reporters on Tuesday. “He has been disconnected from the military for several years. Let's see what happens moving forward, but it's my expectation that we are going to strongly support his nomination."
In the Senate, at least two key Democrats on the Armed Services Committee have signalled opposition to granting Austin a waiver: Sens. Dick Blumenthal, Conn., and Elizabeth Warren, Mass., both of whom were among 17 Senate Democrats who voted against granting Mattis a waiver in 2017. Voting for a similar waiver for Austin could prove a tricky needle to thread, Manley said.
Biden addressed the issue up front in his Atlantic piece, writing that he “respect[s] and believe[s] in the importance of civilian control of our military.”
“Austin knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years,” he wrote.
“Moreover, we need leaders like Lloyd Austin who understand that our military is only one instrument of our national security,” he said. “He and I share a commitment to empowering our diplomats and development experts to lead our foreign policy, using force only as our last resort.”
Code Pink, the anti-war advocacy group, had lobbied fiercely against Flournoy and initially celebrated the announcement that Austin had been chosen, tweeting: “VICTORY!” on Monday evening. “Onward to a more peaceful world!”
By Tuesday, the tweet had been deleted.
“VICTORY!” an updated version read. “Get ready, Gen. Austin, we're coming for you.”