(Bloomberg) -- Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for defense secretary, went before a Senate committee Tuesday whose members have praised his past service as an Army general -- and have questioned whether that service would undermine civilian control of the military.
“I know that being a member of the president’s cabinet -- a political appointee -- requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “So, if confirmed, you can expect me to empower my civilian staff.”
Austin, 67, would make history as the first Black defense secretary at a time when questions are being raised about diversity and tolerance in the ranks. Although 40% of the U.S. force is now people of color, there’s evidence some service members and veterans have been active in white nationalist extremist groups, including in this month’s riot at the Capitol.
In addition to Senate confirmation, Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016, would need both chambers of Congress to pass a waiver from a law that bars former military officers from serving as defense secretary within seven years of stepping down in the name of ensuring civilian control. A waiver was most recently granted to President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, retired General James Mattis.
The House has scheduled a floor vote on the waiver for Thursday. A group that represents a majority of House Republicans has opposed granting another exception, as have a number of senators of both parties. Some Senate Democrats have said they would opposed the waiver on principle -- but may then vote to confirm Austin if it’s approved anyway.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate committee’s Republican chairman, said “we are doing the right thing here,” suggesting he will back Austin’s confirmation and waiver.
Austin also has faced questions about his past leadership of U.S. forces in the Middle East. As head of U.S. Central Command during the Obama administration, Austin faced criticism over the department’s failure to train more than a handful of Syrian fighters despite a $500 million program designed to help combat the Assad regime.
Emphasizing his humble beginnings as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia, Austin sought to convince senators that he understands the plight of the average American.
In a nod to the social tensions that pervade American society, Austin pledged to create in the military “a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment,” adding that he will “fight hard to stamp out sexual assault” and “to rid our ranks of racists and extremists.”
Austin also vowed to work closely with the State Department and make Asia the focus of “our effort,” adding that he sees “China, in particular, as the pacing challenge for the Department.”
In a written submission to the Senate committee, Austin also said that if confirmed:
- He would “increase the speed and scale” of the Defense Department’s support for tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
- He would work to rebuild defense relationships with allies and partners, “many of whom have felt unsure of U.S. commitments and insufficiently consulted in recent years.”
- Considering the “ascent and the scope and scale” of China’s military modernization, he and the Biden administration “will view China as our most serious global competitor and, from a defense perspective, the pacing threat in most areas.”
- He would review U.S. forces in the Middle East, hinting at a reduction by suggesting “we can better calibrate” the American presence and provide “opportunities to employ the force in other theaters.”