With his nominee for Secretary of Defence, Biden is seeking to manage inter- and intra-party challenges on Capitol Hill, counter the Republican narrative for the Georgia run-offs, and pre-empt the political costs of reversing Trump’s foreign policy.
By Kashish Parpiani
Over the past few weeks, US President-elect Joe Biden has announced nominations for his national security cabinet. With his primary batch of nominations, Biden introduced his Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Ambassador to the UN, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change. Biden, however, announced his nominee for Secretary of Defence separately.
This high-profile cabinet post particularly generates interest, owing to its purview over the US Department of Defence (DoD). After all, the DoD is America’s largest employer with the world’s largest military budget, and US’ power projection architecture around the world. Hence, incoming administrations generally opt for a profile that conveys stability.
Barack Obama, for instance, retained Robert Gates from George W. Bush’s cabinet, to ensure continuity of efforts under the Global War on Terror and provide his administration political cover against partisanship on national security. Similarly, in view of widespread concerns over Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ worldview, US legislators confirmed his nomination of retired US Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as “a seasoned counterbalance” to Trump’s inexperience. Notably in Mattis’ case, a near-bipartisan effort waived the requirement of a seven-year “cooling off” period between military service and assuming the civilian post of leading the Pentagon.
Recently, Biden requested for the same waiver for his nominee.
Biden lines up for another exemption
The nomination of Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, a four-star Army general who retired in 2016, has courted controversy. If Congress grants him a waiver, it would only be the third such case in US history. Before Mattis, it was only in 1950, when then-President Harry Truman requested a waiver for George Marshall.
As someone who campaigned against the erosion of democratic norms at home and abroad, Biden’s decision to once again have a recently retired general lead the Pentagon puts into question his commitment to the norm of civilian control of the military. In a recent op-ed, Biden even acknowledged that the “the civil-military dynamic” has been “under great stress these past four years,” but argued that Austin “will work tirelessly to get it back on track” despite his own credentials as a recently retired general. Furthermore, in continuing the Trump precedent of appointing individuals who have ties with the defence industry, Austin is also on the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies.
Biden’s decision is odd also since the Obama-Biden years witnessed one of the only few instances in US history when a theatre commander was relieved in the interest of reinforcing the norm of civilian control of the military. In 2010, Obama announced Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, owing to actions that undermined “the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”
However, it is apparent that Austin’s nomination also stems from certain political considerations.
Austin checks Biden’s political to-do list
If confirmed, Austin will be the “first African-American to helm the Defence Department.” This certainly makes Austin’s nomination historic, and in line with the Biden’s campaign promise to appoint a cabinet that “looks like America.” Biden had committed to do so, amidst increased racial tensions ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and in recognition of the African-American community playing a pivotal role handing Biden the Democratic nomination.
Further, the control of the US Senate rests with the run-off races in Georgia. While Democrats flipped the state blue in the presidential election for the first time since 1992, no candidate for either of Georgia’s Senate seats won a majority. For the run-off elections on 5 January 2021, Republicans have construed their majority in the Senate as a matter of having “a check and balance” against the progressive agenda of the Democratic-led US House of Representatives and the Biden administration. Austin’s nomination fits squarely with Biden’s announced cabinet — filled with former technocrats, career diplomats, and loyalists from his time in the Senate — which has no significant representation from the progressive faction of the Democratic Party.
Moreover, Austin himself is a native of Georgia. In his nomination acceptance speech, Austin even noted, the “first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point” was a “young man from the small town of Thomasville, Georgia.” He then added: “Fast forward to today, nearly 150 years later, and another native son of Thomasville, Georgia stands before you as the Secretary of Defence-designate.”
In addition, Biden has faced pushback from progressives in the House on being shut-out of decisions regarding his cabinet. Austin’s nomination helps dampen that apprehension, since both chambers — the House and the Senate, must grant the waiver on the mandated “cooling off” period before the Senate votes to confirm him.
Finally, Austin’s nomination could help set a precedent of cooperation with legislators across the aisle. During the campaign, Biden spoke of returning to the erstwhile “civility” in the Senate, when “we got things done” even if Republicans and Democrats “didn’t agree on much of anything.” Support from Republicans in Austin’s case could be pivotal, as some Democrats have already come out in opposition. Sen. Richard Blumenthal for instance (who also voted against a waiver for Mattis in 2017) said that Austin’s nomination “is exciting and historic. But I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control of a nonpolitical military.” Whereas, Republican Sen. James Inhofe (Chairman of the Armed Services Committee) has reportedly said that he will support Austin “in a heartbeat.”
Guarding against Trump’s political trap
Austin’s nomination also raises questions over Biden’s foreign policy. In Biden’s op-ed and Austin’s speech, there was no mention of the threat posed by China or the criticality of the Indo-Pacific — which the Trump administration described as America’s “priority theatre.” Hence, Biden has only further fanned doubts over his policy towards China and intent to build on the Trump administration’s record in the Indo-Pacific.
However, Biden’s decision to opt for Austin also seems to be aimed at pre-empting the near-term political costs of addressing Trump’s eleventh-hour foreign policy moves in the Middle East.
In the final weeks before inauguration day, Trump has ordered a precipitous drawdown of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. For Biden, this is certain to present a political bind in the near term. For instance, Biden’s reported inclination to maintain a degree of US troop presence in those countries for counter-terrorism purposes will then politically be seen as Biden squandering Trump’s gains on bringing troops home. Alternatively, if an inter-state eventuality (possibly with Iran’s looming threat to avenge the US killing of Qasem Soleimani) or resurgence of terror organisations warrant a return of US troops to the region (as with Obama redeploying troops to Iraq to fight ISIS), the decision will be seen as Biden reneging on his own promise to end “forever wars.”
At that point, Austin, who was known in military circles as an apolitical “silent general,” will be a credible advocate for Biden’s policy preferences. Despite it being another unhealthy civil-military relations precedent of taking political cover behind a recently retired general’s experience, it will be difficult for Biden’s opponents to question Austin’s experience. As the head of the US Central Command, for instance, Austin held purview over US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, other countries in the Middle East where the US has been or continues to be at war, and even helped cobble the coalition of over 70 countries to defeat ISIS.
For now, however, Biden has deftly referred to Austin’s experience mostly with respect to another near-term challenge, i.e. distributing COVID-19 vaccines. Biden has argued that Austin will “immediately quarterback an enormous logistics operation” to distribute vaccines, given his experience with “the largest logistical operation undertaken by the Army in six decades — the Iraq drawdown.”
Hence, despite legitimate concerns regarding US civil-military relations, the many political calculations behind Biden’s decision to nominate Austin indicate the President-elect’s astuteness with the machinations of Washington.