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  • Writer's pictureAlex Nelson

America's first Black Defense Secretary confirmed by Senate

Ending a week of historic firsts, the United States Senate has confirmed retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin as the nation's first Black defense secretary. Austin is President Joe Biden's second cabinet nomination to be confirmed. His first nominee, Avril Haines, was approved as Director of National Intelligence only hours after Biden was inaugurated. Haines is is the first woman to lead the nation's intelligence services.

General Austin's 41-year career as a military man has been marked by several trailblazing achievements. 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 he became the first African American commander of U.S. Central Command.

Although General Austin and President Biden have had a working relationship since the early Obama administration, the path to confirmation as the first Black leader of the Pentagon was not without challenge. When his nomination was announced late last year, some lawmakers expressed concern that the Austin, 67, was too close to the military, having only retired in 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.

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Austin attempted to assuage concerns about undue military influence, promising to develop an advisory circle of "experienced, capable, civilian leaders." He also assured committee members that his chief of staff "will not be a military person."

"The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces. The subordination of military power to the civil," conceded Austin.

The January 6 riots on Capitol Hill placed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle under pressure to quickly confirm Austin, underscoring the need and desire for a "ready-to-go" national security team. The storming of the Capitol also underscored concerns about white nationalist and extremist views within the U.S. military. A report issued by National Public Radio found that almost 20% of the violent Capitol protesters that have been charged were currently serving in the U.S. military or had formerly served.

Leading up to the final confirmation vote in the House, the Congressional Black Caucus issued a letter in support of Austin. Alabama Congresswoman, Terri Sewell (AL-07), also made a point of supporting the nomination and confirmation of Austin, a fellow native of Alabama .

Sewell, who chairs the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Defense Intelligence and Warfighter Support, noted Austin's history of successful leadership and her belief that his guidance would help protect the United States from foreign and domestic threats.

“I proudly support granting a waiver for Mobile, Alabama native and retired Four-Star General Lloyd Austin to serve as first Black Secretary of Defense. General Austin has an exemplary 41-year career of service and his battle-proven leadership and independence demonstrate he is the right choice to lead the Pentagon during these difficult times,” said Sewell. “We face many challenges as a nation, not least among them a historic pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color and an unprecedented rise of white supremacist and far right-wing domestic terrorist groups. I’m confident in General Austin’s commitment and ability to course-correct and secure our nation from threats at home and abroad.”

Austin was confirmed by the Senate with a 93-2 vote. Republican Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Lee of Utah were the only two dissenting votes.

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. Austin's confirmation marks the third, and arguably, most historic.

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