Why all the fuss about the confirmation of retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of defense?
Waiting the specified amount of time is less important than the character and leadership qualities of the individual needing the waiver.
The reason is that U.S. law dictates that retired military personnel must wait for seven years before being eligible to serve as the secretary of defense unless a waiver is granted by Congress. Austin retired in 2016; therefore, he needs a waiver to serve as secretary. That means the Senate hearing on his nomination Tuesday kicks off an unusual confirmation process.
The fuss seems to be centered on fear: the fear that recently retired generals serving as secretaries of defense would not understand and may not comply with the concept of civilian control of the military; that their leadership and management style bends toward the vantage point of a warrior and would mean they would only seek to start conflicts.
But are these fears well founded? Should they keep an able nominee like Austin from filling the Pentagon’s top post? Quite simply, no. In fact, doing so would harm the country more by denying us one of our most capable leaders at a time when we cannot afford to have anyone but the best.
A waiver option is present in existing law because it was anticipated that the best candidate for secretary of defense may very well be a retired general who may not have reached the requisite number of years out of uniform. Indeed, waiting the specified amount of time is less important than the character and leadership qualities of the individual needing the waiver.
That is why I’m proud to support Austin’s nomination for defense secretary. I share many experiences with Austin — as a commander, a citizen and a Black American. And I believe he embodies the character and type of leadership needed to restore a proper division between the civilian and military spheres expressed in our political and social structures.
With news of President Donald Trump’s reported calls to deploy the military in the wake of his election defeat, the subject of civil-military relations has been on the minds of many Americans. Reacting to this, it was a relief to hear Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say what I and all my fellow generals and admirals know to be true: that there is no role for the military in politics. Austin is a loyal career soldier who will be eager to re-establish that crucial line of delineation, and by his example will only strengthen it.
Austin is a proven leader. Serving multiple tours in Iraq and the Middle East, Austin came up through some of the most esteemed and challenging assignments the Army has to offer — from commands in the 82nd Airborne Division, the 10th Mountain Division and Commander XVIII Airborne Corps. He went on to serve as the director of the Joint Staff, the vice chief of staff of the Army and, finally, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which has geographic responsibility for the Middle East.
These postings are among the most demanding and most prestigious in the military. Austin’s rise to the top shows him to be a true, tested leader. As we face challenges from Russia, China and Iran, we need someone with Austin’s experience and proven leadership at the helm.
These experiences transcend the military realm, which is part of what makes his selection a good one. I can tell you that to get to be a four-star general, one must not only be a good soldier, but also a good diplomat. Being at the four-star level means often engaging outside the chain of military command to work with Congress, civilian agencies, foreign governments and military allies.
Negotiation within the confines of civilian leadership is an essential part of the process. As vice chief of staff of the Army, Austin frequently engaged with Congress to negotiate over budgets, procurements and priorities. His primary success as commander of CENTCOM was building a coalition of foreign partners to roll back the Islamic State militant group in the Middle East.
Also crucial is deference to political leaders — a posture that comes naturally to someone whose career has been steeped in respect for authority. For those worried that Austin doesn’t understand the balance between civilian and military authority, his record says otherwise. He has spent his career working with foreign governments and civilians; he obviously comprehends the principle of civilian military control expressed in our founding documents.
Austin’s personal background also makes him the right candidate for the job, and shows why the need for a waiver can’t be the only factor to weigh in confirming the next secretary of defense. While our military has long been an engine of equality, by some measures it is falling behind in providing opportunities for minorities to advance, especially at the highest levels.
In a year that saw our military pitted against protesters on the front lines of racial justice, Austin’s nomination shows that the promise of racial equality in America and our military is alive and well. It tells young officers and civilians — whether minorities, women or LGBTQ individuals — that they, too, can rise to the highest levels based on merit and hard work.
To get to be a four-star general, one must not only be a good soldier, but also a good diplomat.
I applaud those who have spoken out in defense of our civil liberties and our American system of civil-military relations. Nothing is more precious in a democracy than civilian control of its military. But ensuring civilian control shouldn’t mean keeping the best-qualified citizens from serving their country.
Austin meets all requirements to serve as an effective secretary of defense. I urge the House and Senate to grant him the waiver he requires. It should come down to leadership and character. Austin excels in both, and that’s what America needs.
Larry R. Ellis
Larry R. Ellis is a retired U.S. Army general who served as the commander of the U.S. Armed Forces Command following his assignment as the deputy chief of staff for operations and plans of the Department of the Army.