Alabama native tapped to lead nation's military as U.S. Secretary of Defense
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has shaken up the status quo in the halls of the federal government, making good on pre-election promises for a diversified cabinet. The most recent step in this direction came with the nomination of retired Army General Lloyd Austin III, the first African-American in United States history to be tapped for Secretary of Defense.
The historic nomination offers no guarantees, however, since Austin must first face Senate confirmation prior to taking on the role as the top official at The Pentagon. Political observers and critics have noted that Austin’s path to becoming Secretary of Defense may not be an easy one.
Facing an already polarized and partisan Congress, Austin must contend with criticisms of his background as a career military official. Traditionally, the office of Secretary of Defense is occupied by a civilian official and some members of Congress are skeptical about confirming the former Army general since he has only been retired from military service since 2016. Federal law mandates a waiting period of seven years between active duty military service and serving as the secretary of defense. The policy is designed to maintain the longstanding practice of civilian leadership of the American military.
In order to be officially confirmed, General Austin must receive a Congressional waiver allowing him to circumvent the federal requirement. There have only been two other instances in American history where secretary of defense nominees have been granted a waiver. The first was George Marshall in 1950. The second waiver came in 2017 with Trump nominee Jim Mattis.
Despite swirling speculation around General Austin’s nomination, President-elect Biden expressed unwavering confidence in his pick for The Pentagon’s top spot. Last week, Biden told supporters in his home state of Delaware that Austin is, in fact, the best fit for the position.
“In my judgment, there is no question that he is the right person for this job at the right moment, leading the Department of Defense at this moment in our nation’s history, said Biden, describing General Austin as the “definition of duty, honor and country” and a leader “feared by our adversaries, known and respected by our allies”.
The connection between Biden and Austin dates back to Biden’s time as Vice President. As the head of coalition troops in Iraq during former President Barack Obama’s first term, Austin was lauded for his experienced leadership. Throughout his 41 years in military service, the general has achieved many significant firsts.
In 2010, the U.S. Senate confirmed Austin as the Army's 200th four-star general; the sixth African American to ever hold that position. In 2012, Austin made headlines as the U.S. Army’s first-ever Black vice chief of staff. In 2013, the general became the first African American commander of U.S. Central Command.
Outside of the halls of Congress, particularly in Alabama, General Austin’s nomination has been met with much less controversy. In fact, his roots in the Yellowhammer State have been the subject of much praise and pride since the nomination was announced.
As a 1986 graduate of Auburn University and member of the university’s board of trustees since 2017, Austin enjoys distinguished status as a home-state hero. Soon, the Mobile native may be recognized for yet another historic first as he vies to lead the nation’s 1.3 million active-duty military servicemen and women in his role as the U.S. Secretary of Defense.