Earlier this week, President-elect Joe Biden announced that he would nominate retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of defense. Biden’s choice proved to be immediately controversial for two reasons. First, many on the Hill want a civilian to hold that post. Second, it was widely believed that Michele Flournoy, a highly regarded civilian who previously served in the upper echelon of the Pentagon, would get the nod.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan), a former CIA analyst and acting assistant secretary of defense, was among those making the first objection. “The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military,” Slotkin tweeted. “That is why it requires a waiver from the House and Senate to put a recently retired military officer in the job.” Despite holding Austin in high regard, Slotkin added, she would “need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.”
A congressional waiver is hardly unprecedented. Retired Gen. James Mattis was granted one to serve President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense. But leading Democrats are hesitant to grant another one for Austin, who retired just four years ago in 2016. Former active duty military personnel don’t need a waiver if they’ve been retired for at least seven years.
In response to critics, Biden and his advisers penned a defense of Austin’s nomination for The Atlantic. Biden begins with an odd justification for picking Austin, arguing that the general played a “crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the theater of war” in Iraq in 2011. It’s a strange first argument to make on Austin’s behalf for at least three reasons.