Biden chose Austin over longtime candidate Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official and Biden supporter who was said to have been the first woman to serve as Secretary of Defense. Biden had also considered Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel and former homeland security secretary. Austin’s impending nomination was confirmed by four people with knowledge of the choice who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the selection had not been officially announced.
As a career military officer, Austin, 67, is likely to face opposition from some members of Congress and the defense establishment who believe in drawing a clear line between the civilian and military leaders of the Pentagon. Although many former defense secretaries served briefly in the military, only two – George C. Marshall and James Mattis – were career officers. Marshall also served as Secretary of State.
Like Mattis, Austin would need a waiver from Congress to serve as Secretary of Defense. The laws were aimed at preserving the civil nature of the department.
Four decades in the military
Austin graduated in 1975 from the US Military Academy at West Point and served 41 years in uniform.
Biden has known Austin at least since the general’s years as head of US troops and the coalition in Iraq when Biden was vice president. Austin was commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq in Baghdad in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and he returned to lead US troops from 2010 to 2011.
Austin also served in 2012 as the Army’s Black First Vice Chief of Staff, the service’s second position. A year later, he assumed command of the US Central Command, where he shaped and began to implement a US military strategy to roll back Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Austin retired from the military in 2016 and he would need a congressional waiver of the legal requirement that a former member of the military not wear a uniform for at least seven years before becoming secretary to defense. This waiver has only been granted twice – most recently in the case of Mattis, the retired Marine General who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.
The Mattis period in the Pentagon is now seen by some as proof of why a recently retired military officer should only serve as Secretary of Defense with rare exceptions. Although Mattis remains widely respected for his military prowess and intelligence, critics say he tended to surround himself with military officers to the detriment of a broader civilian perspective. He resigned in December 2018 to protest Trump’s policies.
Politico first reported on Biden’s selection of Austin.