Since winning the 2020 presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have signaled that their cabinet and senior White House team would be among the most diverse in American history.
As the incoming team has begun to take shape in recent weeks, Biden and Harris have been living up to this expectation. On Monday, Biden announced that he had chosen retired four-star General Lloyd Austin to become Secretary of Defense. In remarks given on Wednesday during Austin's official introduction as a cabinet nominee, Vice President-elect Harris proclaimed that "General Austin reflects the very best of our nation."
If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black person to hold the post, one of the highest positions in the U.S. government. Next to choosing Senator Harris for vice president, Austin's nomination is the most consequential choice of a Black official for Biden's administration, and has become the most controversial so far.
Here are five things to know about the man who could soon occupy the top spot in the Pentagon.
1. He's broken ground throughout his career
In his four decades of military service, General Austin has achieved a number of milestones for Black Americans in the military. According to the American Academy of Diplomacy website, he's accomplished a number of "firsts." The site goes on to say that he was the first Black person to:
- Serve as general officer of a U.S. Army Division actively fighting
- Serve as general officer to lead a Corps actively fighting
- Serve as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and Commander of U.S. Central Command.
But these aren't his only major feats.
He also has the distinction of commanding troops as a one-star, two-star, three-star and four-star general. Concerning the latter level, Austin was the 200th person to achieve the status as four-star general, and was only the sixth Black American to achieve that rank. One of the previous men to gain the four-star rank, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, has praised Austin as a "superb choice" for Secretary of Defense.
Despite having so many groundbreaking achievements, Austin has not focused on his race or being the first Black person to hold his positions, but on doing the best job.
Comparing himself to record-setting golfer Tiger Woods, Austin once said “If you talk to Tiger Woods today, and you asked him how he felt about being the best African-American golfer in the world, he would tell you that you don't want to be known as the best African-American golfer. He wants to be known as the best golfer."
2. He supervised U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was highly controversial, leading to questions over the war’s justifications, a long and unpopular American occupation of the country, and contributing heavily to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. After the new Iraqi government decided that it no longer wanted American troops in the country, Austin, as the lead U.S. commander in Iraq, oversaw the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American troops from the country.
As reported by the Washington Post, it was through Austin’s position in Iraq that he got to know then Vice President Biden, who visited the country many times after being tasked by President Barack Obama to spearhead U.S. policy towards the country. General Austin also drew close to Biden’s son, Beau, who was deployed to Iraq and served as a member of Austin’s staff, and the two even attended Catholic services together in the country.
3. He was the top commander for the Middle East and the fight against ISIS
After serving as vice chief of staff for the Army in 2012, President Obama appointed General Austin to lead U.S. Central Command, placing him over all U.S. military efforts in the greater Middle East and parts of Asia, including Afghanistan. President Obama described the position as setting and carrying out policy for “one of the most demanding regions of the world, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and our broader counter-ISIL campaign.”
It was in his position as Commander of CENTCOM that General Austin became the “architect of the counter-Islamic State group campaign in Iraq and Syria.” As detailed by a recent article in the Atlantic by President-elect Biden, he and President Obama tapped Austin to design and implement the U.S. strategy against the expanding Islamic State. The New York Times reports that General Austin’s strategy, which included increased use of air power and the arming and support of local anti-ISIS fighters in Syria, succeeded in halting the spread of ISIS.
4. His nomination has raised objections, mostly from Democrats
Though General Austin is well respected and universally regarded as an effective leader and loyal public servant, his nomination has raised a number of objections, many of them coming from Democrats.
The fiercest criticism raised against Austin is that he has not been retired from the U.S. Army for the seven years that are required by law before an ex-military official can become Secretary of Defense. The role of Secretary of Defense traditionally goes to a civilian, and Austin’s confirmation will require a special waiver from Congress. Only two such exemptions have been granted, the most recent for General James Mattis, who was nominated and confirmed as President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense. Several Democratic senators, who also opposed the waiver for Mattis, have indicated that they are unlikely to support the exception for Austin.
General Austin himself acknowledged the concerns about his military past and sought to alleviate them in his remarks Wednesday.
"I come to this role now 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," Austin said.
General Austin’s nomination has also been criticized because he is seen to have been chosen instead of Michèle Flournoy, a former high-ranking Defense Department official who had been a favorite for the Secretary of Defense position and who would have been the first woman to occupy the role. Flournoy’s supporters feel she has been unfairly passed up for the top Pentagon role several times, and may be less inclined to confirm Austin as a result. Meanwhile, progressives have criticized both Flournoy and Austin for their relationships to defense contractors – Austin joined the board of Raytheon after retiring from the military. And Austin will also likely be questioned over evolving national security challenges such as the rise of China and the dangers of climate change, issues that he did not have to deal with in great detail during his time in command.
5. He earned the nickname the Invisible General
Even with criticisms of the circumstances surrounding General Austin’s nomination and potential questioning over policy positions, he is unlikely to face many challenges concerning his own qualifications or character. General Austin was given the nickname “the Invisible General” in a 2014 New York Times profile article. He earned this reputation by keeping a low profile, including a lack of social media presence, during his time in command. This was a notable contrast to several other high-ranking military officers had gotten into trouble for being too public or famous. For instance, General Stanley McChrystal, was fired in 2010 from his role as commander in Afghanistan after criticizing the president and other administration officials in a Rolling Stone interview, and General David Petraeus was removed from his job as CIA director in 2012 for having an affair with his biographer and passing along classified information.
In contrast, General Austin has enjoyed a distinguished career free of personal or professional scandals. Biden described Austin on Wednesday as "someone who I hold in the highest personal regard as a man of great decency and dignity," and described the General as "the soldier's leader," a nickname he received based on his care for the troops under his command. Even when Austin disagreed with policies, he carried them to the best of his ability.
As reported by the New York Times, General Austin lobbied for a force of several thousand American soldiers to remain in Iraq to fight against emerging threats, but he was ultimately overruled by President Obama, who went along with the Iraqi demand for a full withdrawal.
Austin's faithful execution of the exit from Iraq and the relationship he developed with Biden during the process are among the reasons why he was eventually entrusted with the duty of setting policy for Iraq and the Middle East as head of CENTCOM.
Now, if he is confirmed — an outcome that is not yet certain given the debates around his nomination — the Invisible General will be in the public spotlight like never before, but he is expected to carry out his duties with the same calm professionalism that he has exhibited for 40 years.