WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday introduced his choice for secretary of defense, calling retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin the right man for a potentially volatile moment in global security while hailing the prospect of the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
But the nomination is putting some congressional Democrats in a political bind. In the past, they’ve opposed naming recently retired military officers to a post typically occupied by civilians, yet they don't want to defy their party's incoming president nor be seen as blocking history.
“He is the right person for this job at the right moment,” Biden said at a Delaware event with Austin, adding, “He’s loved by the men and women of the armed forces, feared by our adversaries, known and respected by our allies.”
The choice has both won applause and provoked consternation on Capitol Hill.
Three years ago, Congress waived a law prohibiting the appointment as defense secretary of military officers who have been retired fewer than seven years. That allowed confirmation of President Donald Trump's choice for the post, retired U.S. Marine Gen. Jim Mattis.
That came, however, over the objections of some Democrats, who may now have to reverse themselves to back Austin, who served 41 years in the Army and retired in 2016. Biden said his pick understands the need to keep a clear distance between military and civilian rule, but he added, “Just as they did for Jim Mattis, I am asking Congress to grant a waiver.”
“There’s a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect,” said the president-elect, whose son Beau, the former Delaware attorney general who died of brain cancer in 2015, served as an attorney on Austin’s military staff in Iraq. “I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment doesn’t call for it.”
Austin said he comes to “this new role as a civilian leader, with military experience to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military.”