Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Pick for Defense Secretary, Instantly Becomes a ‘Hot Mess’

It was always going to be difficult to convince Congress to again allow a general barely out of uniform to run the Pentagon. But according to four Democratic Hill sources, President-elect Joe Biden’s abrupt announcement of Lloyd Austin as defense secretary-designate was the sort of surprise that made Austin’s odds longer.

Few on Capitol Hill this week—with the likely exception of Democratic kingmaker Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina—were expecting Austin’s nomination. As The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, Biden didn’t tell the Senate Armed Services Committee that he needed it to move forward with a legal waiver for Austin, who is three years short of the seven years that the law requires officers to have retired from military service before serving as defense secretary.

Now Biden’s Democratic allies on the Hill, many of whom rejected such a waiver in 2017 for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to serve, are in the uncomfortable position of eroding an institutional safeguard ensuring civilian control of the military on behalf of a figure few know and fewer saw coming. One staffer for a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who did not want to be named, called the announcement a “clusterfuck.” Another Democratic aide called the situation a “hot mess.” And it is jeopardizing what should be a historic moment: the nomination of the first Black secretary of defense.

A great deal of the confusion stemmed from a widespread expectation, shared by many on the Hill, that former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy was the likelier choice to run the Pentagon. In fact, Flournoy was still personally courting skeptical Democrats on the Hill just days before the Austin news broke, according to a Democratic aide. Not to mention, many of the Democratic Party’s bench of defense experts, from whom Austin is likely to staff his Pentagon should he get that far, are Flournoy’s proteges and loyalists.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Austin has taken criticism this week in national-security circles for his roles, as commanding general in Iraq and then U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), in both the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014 to ISIS. That likely foreshadows a confirmation hearing that portrays Austin, rather than the politicians who pushed a disastrous war, as the architect of failure in Iraq. That prospect is starting to prompt pushback from Austin’s former colleagues in uniform, who worry that Austin is being set up to take the fall for efforts that were doomed by factors larger than him.

“There’s a lot of U.S. fingerprints on what went wrong with the ISF,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Dan Bolger, who led the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq during Austin’s command, using an acronym for the Iraqi military.

“To point the finger at Lloyd Austin, look, David Petraeus set up [the training command for the Iraqi army], followed by Marty Dempsey, followed by Jim Dubik – a lot of us had our fingers in that pie,” Bolger continued, ticking off the succession of generals, including himself, with responsibility for building a durable Iraqi military. “Proximity does not equal responsibility. The screw-up of the Iraq campaign, we all had a hand in that.”

Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers working on military issues had an inkling that Austin was in the mix for the job, but it appears the Biden team gave little in the way of a heads-up once the decision was made. Several lawmakers only found out about the move when Politico reported that Biden had selected Austin.

House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), a former counter-ISIS adviser in the Obama White House who worked closely with Austin, supports Austin’s nomination and intends to vote for the waiver. The first-term congressman told The Daily Beast on Wednesday he got no advance indication that Austin was chosen, though made clear that he didn’t expect any specific kind of warning from the transition on the nominee or the circumstances of the nod.

But Kim added that the president-elect’s team needs to be aggressive in reaching out to lawmakers to make the case that a waiver for the retired general is necessary to achieve Biden’s vision. “That engagement was happening. It needs to continue,” said Kim. “I know a lot of my colleagues might not have had the personal experience and time working alongside Gen. Austin that I have, and they may want to get to know him better.”

In 2017, 17 Democrats in the Senate and 150 Democrats in the House voted against the waiver for Mattis. Some in that group, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), are signaling now they’ll approve one for Austin. But other prominent voices within the party on military matters have made clear that they cannot.

In a Wednesday interview on MSNBC, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) praised Austin as an “excellent choice.” But, she added, “I will not vote for the waiver. I believe very strongly there needs to be civilian control, civilian oversight of the military.”

One of the country’s foremost experts on civilian control of the military, Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina, expressed concern over nominating Austin – with whom Kohn was not particularly familiar – on principle.

“You can’t have civilian control unless you have a civilian in charge. Someone who spent a career in the military, rising in the ranks, is not a civilian, no matter what kind of clothing he or she wears,” Kohn said. “And it’s ironic: there’s a strong paragraph about civil-military relations and civilian control in the Democratic party platform this past year, and the president-elect spoke about it passionately this afternoon.”

The general’s allies on Capitol Hill believe that he may be able to convince lawmakers to take such a step by proactively engaging with them. Austin is expected to appear for questions before the Senate and House Armed Services panels prior to any waiver vote—a step that Mattis notably did not take.

Asked if Austin has an uphill climb to the Pentagon, Kim said, “I hope not.”

“From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t see that being the case yet,” he said. “But like I said, it’s still early, and I hope that he does get the support I think he deserves right now.”

A transition official, speaking with The Daily Beast on background, was adamant that Biden’s team has been “engaging widely” with individual House and Senate members and with House and Senate committees regarding Austin’s nomination—and the waiver needed to make his confirmation a reality—adding that the transition had already engaged with more than 100 congressional offices as of Tuesday evening.

“Secretary-designate Austin is looking forward to speaking with Congressional leadership early on,” the official said. “He appreciates Congress’ role in considering this waiver, and looks forward to sharing more about his long history of service and his leadership vision for this new assignment as part of a diverse Cabinet executing the Biden-Harris administration’s security agenda.”

The official brushed off past Democratic criticism—and the Democratic Party platform adopted during this year’s convention, in which the party called for a reaffirmation of civilian oversight of the military—by emphasizing the importance of Austin’s “deep experience with every level of the U.S. military” to setting the Pentagon “back on track.”

He has a strong character and that’ll get him through in this secretary of defense role, because that’s a tough role.

— retired Army Lt. Gen. Dan Bolger

But Biden, clearly sensing that the waiver was not a fait accompli, urged Congress to grant it in remarks announcing Austin’s nomination on Wednesday afternoon, deeming the waiver critical to address “the urgent threats and challenges our nation faces.”

“Just as they did for Secretary Jim Mattis, I ask that Congress grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin,” Biden said, speaking in Wilmington, brandishing Austin’s résumé as proof that “we need” his experience in the military in order to, among other things, distribute the coronavirus vaccine, diversify the armed forces, strengthen America’s alliances abroad and “deter threats wherever they arise.”

Asked directly whether the transition had begun whipping the votes necessary for Austin’s waiver, or if a rough head-count for such a vote had taken place, a transition official said that Senate Armed Service Committee members were briefed on the need for a waiver vote, but that the news of his nomination had leaked before those close conversations had moved to the staff level.

Asked directly whether the transition had begun whipping the votes necessary for Austin’s waiver, or if a rough head-count for such a vote had taken place, a transition official said that Senate Armed Service Committee members were briefed on the need for a waiver vote, but that the news of his nomination had leaked before those close conversations had moved to the staff level.

Bolger, who has known Austin since Austin was a captain, described him as a subdued figure, a contrast with the “outsized personalities” of many recently retired generals, who has “a very level head” in the midst of chaos.

“General Austin was never about Lloyd Austin. He was about the mission and the soldiers that worked for him,” Bolger said. “He has a strong character and that’ll get him through in this secretary of defense role, because that’s a tough role.”

But that only underscores that Austin held command during both a highly controversial terminal phase of the Iraq war, in 2011, and the disasters in 2014 that fatefully prompted Barack Obama to return, by degree, U.S. forces to a country they have yet to leave.

At that time, many in the military did not want to pull out of Iraq despite the horrors of the occupation and the landslide election of a president who campaigned on withdrawal. Austin was one of them. As commander in 2011, he argued for a substantial residual force – something opposite the desires of the White House. The Iraqi parliament’s opposition to Austin’s desired residual force settled the issue.

But what happened three years later reopened it. While Austin ran CENTCOM, the so-called Islamic State conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second city, while the U.S. backed Iraqi army there fled instead of fighting. A significant driver of a spectacular failure was the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who purged Sunni officers from the army in a campaign of sectarian retribution. Biden, who was Obama’s Iraq troubleshooter, saw little alternative to working with Maliki. (Tony Blinken, now Biden’s pick for secretary of state, told The Daily Beast last year that Maliki’s sectarianism occurred “not for want of us trying, and berating, and arguing, pushing, and pulling and prodding.”) With ISIS marching south, Obama resumed the Iraq war, leaving Austin to cobble together a response that could revive the Iraqi military and push ISIS back without a major U.S. military commitment.

He and Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opted for a strategy known as “By With And Through.” It emphasized American airpower and mostly non-American ground forces. At times, that meant choosing not to fight ISIS. In October 2014, with ISIS assaulting Syrian Kurdish forces in Kobane, Austin portrayed eastern Syria as a peripheral battlefield. “Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be, and the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq,” he told reporters.

Whatever successes By With And Through yielded for the fall of the Caliphate occurred after Austin retired in 2016. The tail end of Austin’s time at CENTCOM had more embarrassments, like the February 2016 fall of Ramadi to ISIS, than victories. Most publicly, Austin confessed to Congress that a plan to cobble together a Sunni Arab army had failed after a year and half a billion dollars. Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in a 2017 monograph, described Austin and his colleagues as lacking a “comprehensive, achievable plan for success” that necessitated a “massive reorganization in the planning, execution, and communication about the counter-ISIS campaign.”

Blaming Austin for all that, according to Bolger, fits into an American tendency to see Iraqis as bystanders to their own politics and to overattribute outcomes to generals instead of the structures in which they operate. Austin “reacted as quickly as anyone could. It took six to eight months to get a grip on how dangerous ISIS was. Even President Obama first said [ISIS] was a jay-vee squad,” said Bolger, who compared Austin to the post-William Westmoreland commander in Vietnam, an earlier doomed war.

“We didn’t understand the Sunni anger in Iraq at being cut out of the post-American settlement,” Bolger said. “Gen. Austin, in my mind, he’s right up there with Gen. [Creighton] Abrams. He held together a bad situation and did the best he could with a bad war.”

Kim, the ISIS specialist-turned-congressman, said he spent “countless hours in the situation room” with Austin and then-Vice President Biden. Asked about Bolger’s take, Kim said that “Gen. Austin knew the importance of pairing our military support with a political strategy to get the Iraqi government to engage with Sunni populations as well as an effort to reconstitute the Iraqi military to be the main force to counter ISIS. He spearheaded a military effort that brought together a global coalition to deliver results.”

Comments are closed.