President-elect Joe Biden will lean on retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin's experience withdrawing tens of thousands of U.S. forces from Iraq as the Defense Department readies for the massive undertaking of distributing millions of coronavirus vaccines across the country.
That was just one of the reasons Biden selected Austin as his future defense secretary nominee, according to a source familiar with the president-elect's thinking. The person spoke to Military.com on the condition of anonymity Monday night since Biden had not yet publicly named Austin as his pick to run the Defense Department.
"General Austin and President-elect Biden have a long-standing relationship of mutual trust and respect that was forged through many hours spent together in the Situation Room," the person said. "... Because their relationship is so crisis-tested, [Biden] knows he can depend on him to help keep Americans safe."
Biden surprised many with his decision to name Austin his defense secretary pick, having long been expected to nominate Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, to lead the Pentagon. Flournoy would have been the first woman to fill the role, but faced pushback from some progressives over her past policy decisions and ties to the defense industry.
If confirmed, Austin would become the first Black defense secretary. He, too, has close ties to the defense industry as he serves on the board of defense contractor Raytheon Technologies.
Austin, like former defense secretary Jim Mattis, will also require a waiver to serve as the military's top civilian leader, since he has not been out of uniform for the seven years required by law after retiring in 2016. That has left some disappointed in Biden's decision, seeing the need to widen the military-civilian divide after years of concern that the Defense Department has been politicized under President Donald Trump.
At a time when the country continues grappling with protests about race relations though, Austin's career milestones stood out, the person familiar with Biden's decision said. Biden has listed racial justice as a top priority he'll address when in the White House.
"He's had a barrier-breaking career," the person said of Austin, a Silver Star recipient. "He was the first African American general officer to command an army division in combat ... as well as to serve as commander of U.S. Central Command."
Biden also wants someone in the job who understands the human cost of war firsthand, the source added. Austin has had to bury troops who served under him and comfort Gold Star families.
"He strongly agrees with President-elect Biden that military force should only be used as a last resort."
Biden attended Austin's 2010 change-of-command ceremony in Iraq, where Austin oversaw the drawdown of nearly 50,000 troops there as head of U.S. Forces Iraq. He went onto lead military operations across the Middle East as head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016, when the Islamic State group began taking hold in several countries there.
Despite his service record, Austin could -- as Military.com noted last week when the retired four-star became a frontrunner for a spot in the Biden Cabinet -- still face pushback on Capitol Hill, particularly regarding his 2015 testimony on a program the U.S. spent millions on to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS.
The late Sen. John McCain, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made headlines when he delivered a stinging rebuke to Austin, contrasting the general's pronouncement that "we continue to make progress across the battlespace in Iraq and Syria" with his admission that "only four or five" U.S.-trained fighters remained in the fight in Syria.
McCain, an Arizona Republican, called Austin's view "divorced from reality."
"I have been a member of this committee for more than 30 years, and I have never heard testimony like this," McCain said.
Austin's experience and expertise focused on the Middle East makes him an imperfect choice for those who'd like to see the Defense Department focus more intently on future great-power competition and the Pacific amid threats from China.
Some lawmakers may also be reluctant to issue a waiver to another recently retired general to serve as defense secretary. Civilian control of the military is a core American and democratic value, said Jim Golby, a senior fellow with the Clements Center for National Security who served two decades as an Army strategist.
"A big part of what people like about the military today is that it is not as partisan as other institutions," Golby said. "The more we draw military officers into these types of partisan roles, the more partisan our military will become and the less effective it will be at doing the things we need it to do to protect our democracy."