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Joe Biden's Curious Defense of Gen. Lloyd Austin
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Joe Biden’s Curious Defense of Gen. Lloyd Austin

In The Atlantic, the president-elect touts his nominee's handling of the Iraq withdrawal and is notably silent on China.

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. 

First, it used to be that America celebrated generals for winning battles and wars, not withdrawing from them in orderly fashion. This is not a criticism of Austin, so much as a critique of Biden’s stated rationale. Austin undoubtedly faced substantial logistical hurdles in executing America’s exit from Iraq in 2011, but this is not exactly the type of accomplishment that wins one accolades in the history books.

Second, the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq proved to be disastrous, paving the way for the rise of ISIS. The 2003 toppling of Saddam’s regime opened a Pandora’s box of problems. But the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq reopened that same box. The U.S. fought hard to suppress the jihadist threat emanating from that failed state post-2003. Obama, Biden, and other officials often acted as if they could undo the 2003 invasion simply by leaving Iraq. So instead of playing the hand they were dealt and working to keep a residual force in Iraq (as Gen. Austin, Flournoy and others recommended), the Obama team celebrated the supposed “responsible end” of the Iraq War throughout the 2012 presidential campaign. 

In reality, there was nothing responsible about it. The American withdrawal, along with the war in neighboring Syria, proved to be a boon for the jihadists’ cause. ISIS drew in tens of thousands of fighters from around the globe, captured territory the size of Great Britain, and declared its nascent state to be a new caliphate. That menace forced the Obama administration to intervene in Iraq once again, as well as in Syria, in 2014. Biden gives Austin, who was the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) credit for “helping to build a coalition of partners and allies from more than 70 countries who worked together to overcome” ISIS. Fair enough. But that accomplishment only serves to highlight how strange Biden’s opening argument really is.  

Third, as a number of other observers quickly noted, Biden’s essay doesn’t mention China, or whether Austin is well-suited to take on the Chinese threat, at  all. There is a general consensus in Washington that the old way of looking at China—in which policymakers hoped that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) relative economic liberalization and the population’s increasing wealth would lead to political reform—is no longer tenable. There is just too much evidence concerning the CCP’s malevolent ambitions and no real evidence that the country, despite its growing economic clout, is on the verge of a real political transformation. Coupled with the CCP’s growing military capabilities, this has led the Defense and State Departments to embrace the concept of “great power competition.” 

Even so, there is still much room for debate concerning what this means for America and which policies will be most effective in constraining the CCP’s worst impulses. While the U.S.-CCP rivalry is of paramount importance to top policymakers in the Trump administration, it isn’t at all clear just how urgent it is for the incoming Biden administration. That the Biden team was silent on China in its initial defense of the president-elect’s nomination of Austin suggests that the CCP isn’t on the top of their minds—at least not in the same manner as it is for senior Trump administration officials.

The China challenge.

By way of comparison, consider a paper published by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in late November. The analysis, titled “The Elements of the China Challenge,” places the rivalry with the CCP at the center of American life. The Policy Planning Staff has a long history dating back to the Cold War, when its strategic assessments were used to conceptualize the U.S.-Soviet Union rivalry. Currently headed by Dr. Peter Berkowitz, the body views the CCP in similar terms, albeit with some key differences. For instance, just as the Soviet Union “combined communism and Russian nationalism” into its own unique form of authoritarianism, so, too, the CCP has fused “communism and a hyper-nationalist interpretation of China’s status and destiny.” 

However, whereas the Soviet Union “sought to impose its will through military coercion,” the CCP “primarily pursues the reconfiguration of world affairs” via its growing economic power. That is all the more problematic given that China’s and America’s economies are intertwined. The Policy Planning Staff doesn’t dismiss the CCP’s military power, “saber rattling in the South China Sea,” or “menacing statements” toward Taiwan. These are all components of the “China challenge,” as is the CCP’s oppression of dissidents and minorities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But this is not mainly a “military struggle”—at least, thankfully, not yet. 

It’s obvious the Policy Planning Staff decided to go big in its assessment. The report’s authors went far beyond the usual banal policy prescriptions to offer something much bolder. For instance, they offer a list of 10 recommendations, at least three of which involve investments in education to combat the Chinese threat. They argue that the U.S. “must reform American education, equipping students to shoulder the enduring responsibilities of citizenship in a free and democratic society by understanding America’s legacy of liberty and also preparing them to meet the special demands of a complex, information-age, globalized economy for expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” This is a tall order—to put it mildly. But it demonstrates that the staff doesn’t view the China-U.S. rivalry as a tit-for-tat affair involving discrete issues, but instead as something much more fundamental.  

The ideological component of the conflict comes through in several key passages. Consider this one: 

Just as America’s commitment to a free, open, and rules-based international order composed of sovereign nation states arises from our dedication to “unalienable rights” — the language that America’s Declaration of Independence uses to describe the rights inherent in all persons — so too does the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] determination to achieve “national rejuvenation” and transform the international order so that it places China at the center and serves Beijing’s ruling ambitions[, which] stem from the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist ideology and hyper-nationalist convictions.

To be sure, the CCP’s “Marxist-Leninist ideology” is a hybrid belief system, as the party has adopted various western-style economic reforms. But the party’s quest for economic growth hasn’t negated its authoritarian aims, which, according to the Policy Planning Staff, include a “reconfiguration of world affairs.” 

The report’s authors reproduce a quote from China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, who has explained how his party is harnessing capitalism’s economic successes for its own benefit. “In this long period of cooperation and conflict, socialism must learn from the boons that capitalism has brought to civilization,” Xi said in 2013. “Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”

The “dominant position”—it’s worth emphasizing those words again, as Xi doesn’t desire a happy co-existence with the U.S., but instead the power to dictate the course of events.

Readers can review the report themselves and draw their own conclusions. Whether one agrees with all of it or not, the key point here is that the Policy Planning Staff’s assessment is an example of how the Trump administration—or at least some key policymakers within it—have come to view China as a threat to the American way of life. 

Will the Biden administration see the CCP in similar terms? Or will the Biden team consider China as something less than a civilizational threat, but still problematic? And how does the Department of Defense fit into the Biden team’s view of the rivalry with China? 

All of these questions are yet to be answered.  

Thomas Joscelyn is a Dispatch contributor.