United States President-elect Joe Biden has named retired US Army General Lloyd Austin to be his secretary of defence amid concerns from some Democrats about his choice.
Austin is a career soldier who Biden called “a leader of extraordinary courage, character and experience”.
Biden cited his long professional and personal association with Austin, a four-star general, while Biden was vice president.
Austin, age 67, commanded US forces from 2010 to 2012 in Iraq, where he also forged a friendship with Biden’s late son Beau Biden, who served on Austin’s staff as a captain.
Biden recalled Austin’s coolness under pressure and diplomatic skill serving in Iraq at a time when former President Barack Obama was drawing down US forces.
“Austin was with me on the ground, not just for meetings of troops, or for military strategy sessions,” Biden said, recalling meeting with Iraqi political letters.
“I watched his political skill. They respected him. Across the board,” Biden said.
Austin would be the first African American to become secretary of defence if confirmed by the US Senate, but he faces a hurdle because of his recent military service.
Austin retired from military service four years ago. US law requires the top Pentagon position to be held by a civilian or a person who has been out of military service for at least seven years.
That means Congress must vote to grant Austin a waiver, as lawmakers did in 2017 to approve former US Marine Corps General James Mattis as President Donald Trump’s secretary of defence.
Democratic lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have expressed concerns already about Biden’s selection even as they praise Austin’s credentials.
Representative Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who served in Iraq and later became an assistant secretary of defence under Obama, expressed doubts about providing a waiver.
“I have deep respect for General Lloyd Austin,” she said. “We worked together when he commanded US forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the army, and when he was the CENTCOM [United States Central Command] commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off.”
Senator Tammy Duckworth, an army veteran wounded in Iraq, said in a US television interview that she believes a waiver will pass Congress, and she supports Austin, although she does not support a waiver.
“The system is set up [so] that there should be civilian control of the military,” Duckworth said on MSNBC.
“I will tell you, though, that General Austin is an excellent officer, well tested, very capable of leading the Department of Defense and I think he will be an excellent secretary of defense,” said Duckworth, who has offered to help Austin navigate the confirmation process in the Senate.
Austin comes from a small city in the southern US state of Georgia and graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1975.
Starting as a second lieutenant, Austin worked his way up the US Army hierarchy – including taking tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – to become the commander of the US Central Command in 2013.
In 2014, Austin oversaw the development of the US’s multilateral military campaign to evict the ISIL (ISIS) from Iraq and Syria.
Austin retired in 2016 and took a seat on the board of Raytheon Technologies, a major US defence contractor.
In remarks after Biden’s introduction, Austin offered assurances that he would strive to respect the US’s tradition of civilian leadership of the military.
“When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time and went from being General Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin,” he said.
“It is an important distinction and one that I make with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.”
In naming Austin, Biden recalled an incident in Baghdad in 2009 when insurgents launched mortar shells toward the Green Zone.
Austin and Biden were meeting in the US ambassador’s residence at the time. Austin did not react to the popping sounds of mortar shells, continuing the meeting as if it “was just another day at the office”, Biden said.
“He’s cool under fire, inspiring the same in all those around him,” Biden said.
“He was the person President Obama and I trusted with the incredible task of bringing home America’s forces and redeploying our military equipment safely out of Iraq,” Biden said of Austin.
Another factor in Biden’s selection of Austin was his personal relationship with Biden’s late son, Beau, while they were both deployed in Iraq, an official familiar with Biden’s decision told The Washington Post newspaper.
Both Catholics, Austin and Beau Biden had attended church services together and sat next to each other almost every Sunday on deployment.
“They developed a deep relationship and even saw each other after Beau returned from his deployment,” the official said of Austin’s interaction with Biden’s son.