Joe Biden will nominate Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star army general, to be secretary of defense, according to four people familiar with the decision. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black leader of the Pentagon.
Biden selected Austin over the longtime frontrunner for the position, Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who would have been the first woman to serve as defense secretary. Biden also had considered Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel and former secretary of homeland security.
The impending nomination of Austin was confirmed by four people with knowledge of the pick who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the selection hadn’t been formally announced.
As a career military officer who served 41 years in uniform, the 67-year-old Austin is likely to face opposition from some in Congress and in the defense establishment who believe in drawing a clear line between civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon. Although many previous defense secretaries have served briefly in the military, only two – George C Marshall and James Mattis – have been career officers. Marshall also served as secretary of state.
Biden has known Austin at least since the general’s years leading US and coalition troops in Iraq while Biden was vice-president. Austin was commander in Baghdad of the multinational corps-Iraq in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and he returned to lead US troops from 2010 through 2011.
Austin also served in 2012 as the first Black vice-chief of staff of the army, the service’s No 2-ranking position. A year later he assumed command of US central command, where he fashioned and began implementing a US military strategy against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Austin retired from the army in 2016. Like Mattis, he would need to obtain a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary, exempting him from the legal requirement that a former member of the military be out of uniform at least seven years before serving as secretary of defense. Such laws were meant to preserve the civilian nature of the Department of Defense.
Austin has a reputation for strong leadership, integrity and a sharp intellect. When Austin retired in 2016, Obama praised his “character and competence” as well as his judgment and leadership.
He would not be a prototypical defense secretary, not just because of his 41-year military career but also because he has shied from the public eye. It would be an understatement to say he was a quiet general; although he testified before Congress, he gave few interviews and preferred not to speak publicly about military operations.
Austin was involved in the Iraq war from start to finish. He served as an assistant commander of the 3rd infantry division during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and oversaw the withdrawal in 2011. He earned the admiration of the Obama administration for his work, although he disagreed with Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq entirely in December 2011.
Austin is also a member of the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies.