Some opposition seen to Austin as defense secretary

Some opposition seen to Austin as defense secretary
2015 file photo of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III. (Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WWNY) - There were signs of opposition Tuesday to the selection of Gen. Lloyd Austin III to be the next secretary of defense.

General Austin, former commander of the 10th Mountain Division, would be the first African-American to lead the military, a historic first for an institution in which many Black Americans serve, but in which virtually all the top leadership jobs are held by whites.

Several news organizations reported Monday night that President-elect Joe Biden has selected Austin for the top job at the Pentagon.

Austin, who was stationed at Fort Drum from August 2003 to August 2005, has a long and distinguished military career.

But he only retired from service in 2016, and would be required to not only win approval from congress to take the job, but get a waiver from congress as well because he has only been retired four years.

American law dictates a seven year waiting period between active duty and becoming defense secretary.

And that is the potential problem - it’s not clear how big of one - for Austin.

The seven year rule exists because the military is supposed to be overseen by civilians, and the secretary of defense is supposed to be a civilian. It’s one of the “checks and balances” built into government. Only twice in the last 70 years - President Harry Truman with George Marshall and President Trump with James Mattis - has a president sought a waiver.

In an opinion article in the New York Times Tuesday, defense expert James Golby writes “...appointing another retired general to lead the Pentagon will not help return things to normal.”

“After four years of relative, if erratic, autonomy under Mr. Trump, military leaders may chafe when civilian national security leaders ask to check their homework. To some extent, that is healthy. Too much friction can also stop or slow progress, true, but a certain level is necessary for proper governance.

“The need for experienced leadership in the Pentagon to manage this friction is vital. As even George Marshall realized, Mr. Biden would be wise to select a strong civilian who is up to the task.”

Golby was not the only dissenting voice to weigh in Tuesday.

Democrat Elissa Slotkin, who represents Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, said in a statement “choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off.”

“The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military.”

Slotkin represents the pragmatic, not-far-left part of the Democratic party, and her reluctance to support Austin - despite his sterling record - may be a sign of trouble ahead.

There was no statement Tuesday from north country congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who - like many Republican elected officials - has yet to acknowledge Biden is the president-elect.

A spokeswoman for New York Senator Charles Schumer said Schumer had issued a statement on Austin’s selection Monday night. Repeated attempts by 7 News to get the statement Tuesday failed, but Schumer was quoted as saying Tuesday “I’m just looking at all of this now.”

Defense News reported Tuesday that New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand was one of the Democrats who voted against granting a waiver to General Mattis in 2017.

And Defense News quotes Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., as saying in 2017 “waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation.

“Therefore I will not support a waiver for future nominees. Nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.”

A Politico article Monday questioned Biden’s reliance on former military officials for his transition, and quotes Charles Allen, a retired Army colonel and scholar on civil-military relations at the Army War College, as saying “For me I think the concern is you want to have unchallenged civilian control of the military. You want the military to be subordinate to civilian authority and not supplant it.”

Copyright 2020 WWNY. All rights reserved.