Congress approves waiver for Lloyd Austin to become defense secretary

The Senate is expected to confirm the former CENTCOM commander as Pentagon chief Friday.

al-monitor Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a retired army general, answers questions during his confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images.

Jan 21, 2021

The Senate will convene Friday morning to confirm Lloyd J. Austin, a retired Army general and former top commander of American forces in the Middle East, as President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense.

Both houses of Congress moved quickly approve a waiver for Austin on Thursday afternoon, clearing his path to become the nation’s first Black defense secretary and the second recently retired military commander in four years to fill that role, which is traditionally reserved for civilians. People who have retired from the military within the previous seven years cannot be confirmed for the post unless they receive a waiver; Austin retired in 2016.

His approval to lead the Pentagon follows that of former Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who also was a CENTCOM commander, during the Trump administration in 2017, setting a potential precedent that has drawn objection from some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Twenty-seven senators, 13 of them Republican, voted against the waiver for Austin. Among the 14 Democratic senators opposing the exemption were Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Speaking to the Senate during his confirmation hearing earlier this week, the former CENTCOM chief offered reassurances of his own commitment to civilian oversight and vowed to take a stand against right-wing extremism in the military — an issue drawing renewed scrutiny after a right-wing mob, including a number of veterans, ransacked the Capitol in support of outgoing President Donald Trump.

In response to questions about his qualifications to lead the Pentagon as the United States shifts its strategic focus toward competition with China, Austin pointed to his time at CENTCOM, the military’s largest combatant command.

“The reason I was focused on the Middle East for quite some time is because that was the most important thing for our country,” Austin said, also noting that he would support an update to the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

“We need resources to match strategy, and strategy to match policy,” he told lawmakers Tuesday. “Globally I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department.”

Austin also suggested he supports Biden’s proposal of a reduced military presence in Afghanistan focused on counterterrorism while ending US involvement in the wider conflict with the Taliban via a negotiated solution.

The former general will take the helm at a Pentagon quickly filling up with former Obama-era officials in roles long left vacant — or in some cases, handed to lightly experienced political loyalists — by the Trump White House.

Austin’s selection by Biden was a surprise to many in Washington, who expected Michele Flournoy, who served as the Pentagon’s top policy official under President Barack Obama, to be chosen for the role.

In an article in the Atlantic in December in which Biden named Austin as his selection for the post, Biden highlighted Austin's role in executing Obama's order to withdraw US forces from Iraq from 2011.

"General Austin got the job done," Biden wrote.

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