Rebecca Grant: Biden's Defense Secretary pick may be shocked by these surprising themes at Pentagon

If confirmed, the retired four-star Army general will be the first Black Secretary of Defense

President-elect Joe Biden has announced that he plans to nominate retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as his secretary of defense.

If confirmed, the retired four-star Army general will be the first Black Secretary of Defense. That's historic, by any measure. The general, an Obama administration insider faces a new world of threats from China – and gains a military vastly improved by President Trump. 

Appointing a Black person to one of the big Cabinet posts in the administration was a high priority for Team Biden and in Austin they found a very strong pick. He's a nominee that the Senate will love. But let’s move on from race, for the choice of Austin is fascinating on many levels.

First, the Democrats are already fussing about “another general.” The New York Times fretted a retired general should not be Secretary of Defense and even the Stars and Stripes newspaper predicted turmoil.

KEY HOUSE DEMOCRAT PUSHES BACK ON BIDEN PICKING GENERAL FOR DEFENSE SECRETARY

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., tweeted: “I have deep respect for Gen. Lloyd Austin. We worked together when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the Army, and when he was the CENTCOM commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off.”

How unkind. 

Some of this is backlash because Biden didn’t select front-runner Michele Flournoy, who would have been the first female Secretary of Defense. Instead, Biden has stuck to his pattern of picking close associates he knows well from the past.

Complain away, but Austin will only need about 5 minutes of update briefings to be ready to run the Pentagon.  He’s had extensive command assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the ISIS war. 

I predict America is going to like Austin.

“There’s nothing that prepares you better for combat than growing up with four older sisters,” Austin told a West Point history team in 2017.   

Austin was raised in Thomasville, Georgia. “We were an odd-duck black Catholic family in South Georgia,” according to Austin.  “My faith has been a strong part of my development over the years,” Austin has said.

Austin never grew up in an all-segregated environment but recalled “ugly days” as one of the first Black students at his high school. 

His father, a corporal in the Army Air Corps in World War II and retired mailman, helped steer him to West Point.  So did a Green Beret uncle.  An academic scholarship to Notre Dame tempted him.  “If you’re Catholic, Notre Dame is your University,” Austin said.  Austin graduated from West Point in 1975 with plans to stay five years, then leave for law school. 

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Fast forward to March 2003, and General Austin was the Assistant Division Commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry division, securing Baghdad in 22 days with the “Thunder Run” during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  

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Still, Austin had no illusions about an easy victory. “Most of us were concerned with the decision to completely stand down the Iraqi Security Forces” and put lots of Iraqis with military training on the streets without a job,” he recalled.

Austin was right. It took years of surge and over 200,000 US forces to stabilize Iraq. 

Austin got to know Biden in 2010 while commanding US Forces in Iraq during the Obama administration drawdown.  Vice President Biden was managing the Iraq portfolio.  Austin also talked to President Obama occasionally. 

Then from 2013 to 2016 Austin ran United States Central Command, the major warfighting command in the Middle East.  Austin came in after the Obama Administration booted Marine General Jim Mattis out of the job early. 

It’s ironic that Biden now wants Austin to step into another job once held by Mattis: Secretary of Defense. 

Austin saw Obama through the toughest military decisions of his presidency: Syria and the rise of ISIS.  Not all of them went well.  Austin was there for Obama’s fateful last-minute decision not to attack chemical weapons sites in Syria in September 2013.  A year later, ISIS forces were within 20 miles of Baghdad and Obama had to act.  Thus began the ISIS war, and Austin deserves credit for pulling in allies and using massive US airpower to drive ISIS away from Baghdad. 

It’s a strong resume.  NATO allies already know him from these jobs.  So just what are Slotkin and crew worried about? 

Unlike some generals, Austin’s time in Iraq also included very close work with US diplomats.  At first “we didn’t like each other.  The State Department guys were from Venus, we were from Mars,” Austin joked in a 2018 West Point interview.  “As we forced ourselves to come together, we learned about each others’ significant capabilities.”

Another advantage?  COVID vaccine delivery under President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed is headed by Army logistics genius Gus Perna, who worked for Austin in Iraq.  Connections like these will be useful, not detrimental.  

Austin has also been clear-eyed about Iran. He told the Senate in 2016 that the Iran nuclear deal hadn’t changed Iran’s behavior and Iran’s missile development and terror forces made them “a significant destabilizing force in the region.” 

Austin will face brewing problems with Iran, Taiwan security, Afghanistan troop levels and of course, China.  But he will also ride the crest of President Trump’s massive efforts to rebuild the military and accelerate innovation.  His combat experience will give China pause and the Russians already know him well from the Syria tangle. 

Of course, Secretary of Defense is a thankless job.  Defense secretaries often get fired.  Mark Esper did; and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel later said the Obama administration tried to “destroy” him.

Even though he knows this crowd, Austin may be shocked at how much so-called progressive themes like climate change have taken over Democrat defense policy.

However, Austin’s calm, easy demeanor will go over well. 

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Army generals are people-oriented. It comes from so many years of leading and caring for soldiers. “Leading soldiers on the ground is what I wanted to do,” Austin said of his Infantry assignments. And Army generals don’t get to be four-stars unless their peers truly approve of them. 

All this will make Austin an asset to the Cabinet. 

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