As a career military officer, 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.
Like Mattis, Austin would need to obtain a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary. The laws were meant to preserve the civilian nature of the Department of Defense.
“But retired generals are not one-for-one substitutes of civilian leaders. General officers bring different skills and different perspectives, and great generals do not universally make good appointees."
- Loren DeJonge Schulman, who spent 10 years in senior staff positions at the Pentagon and the National Security Council
One of the people who confirmed the pick said Austin’s selection was about choosing the best possible person but acknowledged that pressure had built to name a candidate of color and that Austin’s stock had risen in recent days.
Austin is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served 41 years in uniform.
Biden has known Austin at least since the general’s years leading U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Central Command, where he fashioned and began implementing a U.S. military strategy for rolling back the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Austin retired from the Army in 2016, and he would need a congressional waiver of the legal requirement that a former member of the military be out of uniform at least seven years before serving as secretary of defense. That waiver has been granted only 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 at the Pentagon is now viewed by some as evidence of why a recently retired military officer should serve as defense secretary only in rare exceptions. Although Mattis remains widely respected for his military prowess and intellect, critics say he tended to surround himself with military officers at the expense of a broader civilian perspective. He resigned in December 2018 in protest of Trump’s policies.
Loren DeJonge Schulman, who spent 10 years in senior staff positions at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, said she understands why Biden would seek out candidates with a deep understanding of the military. However, she worries that appointing a general to a political role could prolong some of the damage caused by Trump’s politicization of the military.
“But retired generals are not one-for-one substitutes of civilian leaders,” she said. “General officers bring different skills and different perspectives, and great generals do not universally make good appointees.”
Austin has a reputation for strong leadership, integrity and a sharp intellect. 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.
When he did speak, Austin did not mince words. In 2015, in describing how the Islamic State army managed a year earlier to sweep across the Syrian border to grab control of large swaths of northern and western Iraq, Austin said the majority of Iraqi Sunnis simply refused to fight for their government.
“They allowed — and in some cases facilitated — ISIS’ push through the country,” Austin said.
He earned the admiration of the Obama administration for his work in Iraq and at Central Command, although he disagreed with Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq entirely in December 2011.
Politico first reported Biden’s selection of Austin.