President-elect Joe Biden's selection of Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general with close ties to the defense industry, has led to an outcry among defense observers who say he was placed under less scrutiny than Michèle Flournoy, long seen as the leading contender for the position.
Biden formally made the announcement Tuesday after Politico first reported that Austin, a West Point graduate and the former head of U.S. Central Command who earned a Silver Star in Iraq, had been tapped for the job. If confirmed, Austin will become the first Black defense secretary.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, a female-led organization working to end U.S. conflicts and militarism abroad, was quick to celebrate "quashing" Flournoy's potential nomination following Politico's story Monday. The group was among several left-leaning organizations publicly voicing their opposition to Flournoy for the defense secretary role.
But Code Pink's founder failed to mention that Austin, like many retired generals, has served on corporate boards since his retirement in 2016, most notably as a member of the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, a large aerospace and defense firm specializing in missile defense and smart weapons. Code Pink later deleted its initial victory tweet and posted a new one that said, "Get ready, Gen. Austin, we're coming for you."
It was one of many reactions to the news of Austin's appointment that made Rachel Stohl, vice president at the Stimson Center who oversees the center's conventional defense program, immediately think about parity of treatment.
"There's really a double standard in terms of expectations for what a qualified candidate looks like, between men and women," Stohl said in an interview Monday.
"We're comfortable with a male [from the] military with defense industry ties, but we're not comfortable with a woman who has defense industry ties -- perhaps even less so," said Stohl, who specializes in international arms trade.
"We [women] are held to an entirely different standard of competence, of who is in our networks, how we utilize those networks, than males who have similar or lesser qualifications."
Stohl stressed she does not discount Austin's qualifications to lead as the next defense secretary, but said that if Flournoy's relationship to industry is a disqualifying measure, Austin's ties to Raytheon should be viewed in the same light.
"If Austin is sitting on the board of Raytheon, and progressives are worried about ending the war in Yemen, [his ties to defense industry] seem like a far greater stretch than Michele Flournoy's," she said, referencing Raytheon's increased bomb sales that enable Saudi fighter jets to strike targets in Yemen -- and kill scores of civilians in the process.
Gender aside, Stohl questioned who exactly would make progressive Democrats happy, given the ubiquitous military-defense revolving door in Washington.
"How do you work in this town for 20-plus years and not have relationships with industry ... or not have some tie in some way?" she said.
Building on those relationships is an important piece of the job, added a former Obama administration official who worked at the Pentagon.
"The Defense Department doesn't make anything for itself, right? So it relies on industry," the official said, speaking to Military.com on background due to current career implications.
"We have to know industry, because we don't make anything for ourselves. Can it become too extreme? You bet. Where is that line? I don't know if I know. But I always want to problematize the premise of progressive groups saying that, ‘We’re owned by industry.’ I just think it's dumb and uninformed because we have to know industry, even if we're not benefiting from it financially," the official said.
As Flournoy's name has surfaced in defense and national security circles as Biden's top SecDef contender over the last few weeks, many who've collaborated with Flournoy over the years noted that she seemed to be held to a different standard than Austin, or even Antony Blinken, Biden's choice for secretary of state.
In 2017, Flournoy co-founded consulting firm WestExec Advisors with Blinken. The New York Times reported last month that WestExec has drawn scrutiny because of the secrecy of its client list and the fact that so many firm alums are finding places in the nascent Biden administration.
Flournoy and Blinken both also have links to Pine Island Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in aerospace and defense contractors, the Times reported; Austin is also connected to the firm.
Flournoy has had other industry ties as well: She has been on the board of consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton and served as a senior adviser within the Boston Consulting Group. As the watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight pointed out, CNAS itself is contractor-funded.
When the Times' story published, Flournoy received backlash for these connections, especially from progressive groups claiming Flournoy's past work compromised her objectivity to lead the Pentagon.
National security experts observed the same response was not seen for Austin or Blinken.
"The [Times] article notes Tony Blinken's shared role [in WestExec and Pine Island]. But this tweet doesn't," Erin Simpson, a defense policy expert who now works for Northrop Grumman, said upon seeing the Times story promoted by one of its authors, Eric Lipton.
Lipton had mentioned Flournoy multiple times when sharing the story on social media, but failed to identify Blinken, or even Austin as the story's other subjects. "Honestly - why does one partner keep getting a pass while the other receives 'scrutiny?'" Simpson tweeted Nov. 28.
"Why does a woman need to be so pure?" Stohl echoed.
"I'm frustrated, to be honest. Diversity and inclusion are wonderful, representation is amazing; seeing people that look like you, et cetera. But then why is this defense secretary job so elusive for a woman? I don't know," she said.
The former Obama administration official additionally said Flournoy avoided working for traditional defense contractors. "She actually made a very intentional decision not to do that," the official said, "and if she had, I wouldn't have faulted her necessarily."
Flournoy instead looked to emerging commercial tech and innovation companies that could benefit the military. Her "ahead of the curve" approach, the official said, would bode well when up against adversaries like Russia or China.
Flournoy sought out "parts of the defense tech community which, probably right now, are much more valuable to the department staying technologically superior," the official said.
"That was super smart. And I don't know anybody else doing that."
Women have come close being chosen for the Pentagon's top position before, including Flournoy. Flournoy removed herself from consideration as a successor to then-SecDef Chuck Hagel in 2014, when Obama initially considered her for the position, NBC News reported at the time.
After President Donald Trump's firing of Mark Esper last month, the Times reported Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett was a possible successor, as well as former Sen. Martha McSally -- who recently lost her race in Arizona -- and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.
An Uphill Battle Remains
Now with Austin's nomination formally announced, there's more under the microscope than just his work for Raytheon.
Veteran groups and national security law experts have expressed concerns over having yet another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian. Austin, who retired from that Army in 2016, would need a congressional waiver in order to permit him to serve, since the current rules stipulate a nominee must be out of the military at least seven years.
Common Defense, a left-leaning grassroots organization composed of veterans and military families that formed after the 2016 election, was one of several groups that noted Austin's nomination will be historic in its own right -- a "barrier-breaking" selection to make him the first Black nominee "more than 72 years after the military was desegregated."
But Common Defense called out Biden nonetheless for making "a grave, democracy-threatening mistake," according to the group's official statement.
"The selection of General Austin directly violates Joe Biden's campaign promises, the 2020 Democratic Party platform, as well as the one explicit request our organization made with regards to the Secretary of Defense choice," the group said. "We were informed that our red-line of 'no retired generals in the Cabinet' was communicated to the top leadership in the transition team and the president-elect, and the concerns of our 180,000 members were apparently disregarded.
"If generals are appointed to political roles, too many actively-serving generals will see themselves as politicians-in-waiting, rather than professionals with a duty to provide their best advice to the Commander-in-Chief elected by the people."
Common Defense also blasted Biden's office for choosing someone with clear industry associations, noting at the same time that Flournoy and another rumored SecDef contender, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, also did.
Johnson is on the board of Lockheed Martin Corp., the largest U.S. defense company.
"We reject the idea that the only qualified options to serve as Secretary of Defense are individuals who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, or Raytheon (as General Austin does)," Common Defense said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct Rachel Stohl's title.
-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.