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Biden Snubs Flournoy, Chooses Retired Gen. Austin for Defense Secretary

The former four-star general, corporate board member, and potential first African-American Defense Secretary's positions on billion dollar arms deals, troop withdrawals, and forever war are unclear.
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President-elect Joe Biden snubbed heavily-favored national security establishment gadfly Michele Flournoy and announced he will be selecting retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon, Politico reported late Monday. If confirmed, the retired four-star general will be the first African-American Defense Secretary.

Austin retired from active duty just four years ago, which could complicate his nomination.

In order to emphasize the importance of civilian control of the military, Congress imposed a seven year waiting period after military service prior to appointment. While Congress can waive that requirement, they have only done so twice in history: first for Gen. George Marshall in 1950, and second for Gen. James Mattis in 2017.

Several lawmakers, mostly Democrats, made it clear three years ago when they waived the requirement for Mattis that they would not do so in the future.

“Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in 2017. “I will not support a waiver for future nominees.”

Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. told reporters Tuesday that as far as a waiver for Austin goes, he isn’t “ruling it in or ruling it out” but wanted to stress that “we did that for Mattis, but there is a reason why we have civilian oversight of the Defense Department.”

Austin’s nomination may also be complicated by the fact that Biden overlooked Pentagon insider Michele Flournoy. Flournoy worked for the Defense Department in multiple Democratic administrations and helped escalate US military involvement in Afghanistan. She also supported the Libya intervention and served on the board of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

Several key House Armed Services Committee Democrats were publicly stumping for Flournoy to become the first woman to run the Pentagon as recently as last week.

Austin’s surprise selection earned a series of unflattering headlines. “Sorry, Gen. Lloyd Austin. A Recently Retired General Should Not Be Secretary of Defense,” a New York Times op-ed headline blared; while NPR’s “Biden’s Defense Pick Raises Concerns Over Civilian Control Of The Military” reflects the general media reaction to the announcement.

The headlines echo the sentiments of several critical voices in the national security establishment.

“From a civil-military relations perspective, this seems like a terrible idea,” tweeted Georgetown University professor and former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks.

The negative reaction may in part be due to the Washington national security insider support for Flournoy.

“Austin spent his entire adult life as a professional warfighter, from his graduation at the U.S. Military Academy in 1975 until his retirement from the Army in 2016,” reports Forbes. “During the latter stages of his career, he served successively as commander of Joint Task Force 180 in Afghanistan, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, director of the Joint Staff, commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, commander of all U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and finally head of U.S. Central Command.”

As head of the U.S. Central Command, he had responsibility for Northeast Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia “virtually every place the United States had been at war and in many regards, still is, for the last two decades,” writes Quincy Institute’s Kelley Vlahos. Austin retired from the Army in 2016 as a four-star general. Whether lawmakers view all this experience as good or bad remains to be seen.

Neither Biden nor Harris served in the military, and lawmakers seem divided on whether it is an advantage to have “a senior participant in their deliberations who has been [on the battlefield] and fully grasps the realities of modern conflict,” as Loren Thompson puts it in Forbes, or whether long-term military service is a conflict of interest and complicates the high-level policy decisions the Pentagon has to make.

The one thing that all recent Pentagon leaders share in common, whether civilian or military, is that they all have served on the boards of top military-industrial corporations. Mattis was on the board of General Dynamics before leading the Defense Department, and he returned to the board after resigning from public service. Austin is currently a paid board member for Raytheon, one of the world’s top five defense contractors; and outgoing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also worked for Raytheon as one of their top lobbyists before leading the Pentagon. Raytheon was the fifth biggest government contractor with $15 billion in obligations in 2019, according to Bloomberg News. President Obama’s Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had a long history of working as a consultant to the defense industry between stints as a full-time official at the Department of Defense. While working in the private sector, Carter “held plum positions on government advisory boards that called for reforms with potential ramifications for his defense industry clients and other companies that receive DoD dollars,” an obvious conflict of interest, Project on Government Oversight reported. Carter now sits on the board of GE.

The revolving door between the Pentagon and billion-dollar defense industry corporations is problematic for many reasons. The Defense Secretary weighs in on decisions that affect multi-billion dollar contracts for companies the boards of which they recently vacated. Biden’s State and Defense Departments will need to review whether to continue policies enacted under Trump, like the potential $1.55 billion arms sales to South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Croatia, Lebanon and Canada approved Tuesday. They will have to decide whether to green-light Trump’s $23 billion arms deal to the United Arab Emirates and $8 billion to Saudi Arabia.

For those concerned about the incestuous relationship between the Pentagon and defense corporations, Biden’s choice to lead the Defense Department is disappointing.

The selection of people with “deep ties to the defense industry… is a well-trodden path in Washington that has resulted in a great deal of wasted money, failed acquisition programs, and wars that never end. It’s about time we try something else,” said Dan Grazier, a veteran and analyst for the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information.

The choice of Austin, instead of establishment favorite and Libya-interventionist Flournoy, may signal Biden’s foreign policy intentions. It’s unclear whether Austin would favor or oppose further troop withdrawals or deployments in the next four years, as his stance on current U.S. military deployments in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Djibouti, Jordan and Somalia is unknown.

Biden’s history with Austin may provide a clue: Biden became familiar with General Austin when Austin was leading the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Austin briefed the Vice President frequently. Austin also helped lead the campaign against the Islamic State. Thompson believes Austin’s decades of battlefield experience will help him steer Washington away from “new ‘forever wars’ in the future.”

Only time will tell whether Austin’s  battlefield experience will make him bolder, or more cautious, about future military entanglements, should Congress allow this former four-star general to lead the Pentagon.

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