WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday defended his decision to appoint retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin as his secretary of defense, a personnel election that could become one of the future president's most controversial.
Under the National Security Act of 1947, Congress prohibited anyone from serving as secretary of defense for seven years after active service. But Austin left the Army only four years ago, and he would require a special waiver from Congress to circumvent the seven-year rule.
Biden wrote in The Atlantic, tacitly admitting that Austin's nomination was against civilian requirements, but argued that the strength of Austin's qualifications outweighed the potential harm of blurring the civil-military divide.
"I respect and believe in the importance of civilian control of our military and the importance of a strong civil-military working relationship at DoD – as does Austin," Biden wrote.
"Austin also knows that the Secretary of Defense has different responsibilities than an officer-general and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great pressure over the past four years," wrote Biden.
If this were approved by the Senate, the 1975 graduate of West Point would be the first black Pentagon leader to break through one of the more permanent glass ceilings of the US government.
U.S. Central Command Commander General Lloyd Austin III holds a press conference on Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military effort against the Islamic State Group (IS), on October 17, 2014 at the Pentagon in Washingon, DC.
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images
Austin also has a personal relationship with Biden after gaining the President-elect's trust and confidence in leading the Global Coalition Against ISIS, which began in 2014 while Biden was Vice President and Austin led US Central Command.
Biden also stressed in his Atlantic essay that despite Austin's recent active service, he understands "that our military is only an instrument of our national security".
"To keep America strong and secure, we must use all of our tools," wrote Biden. "He and I share an obligation to empower our diplomats and development experts to guide our foreign policy, using violence only as a last resort."
Still, news of Austin's likely nomination was greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill this week, with several key Senators saying they were not sure they would vote to give Austin the waiver necessary to take up the position of Secretary of Defense .
"That's the exception, not the rule," John Thune, R-S.D., Told reporters Tuesday. "I'm not including or excluding it. But I think it's something we need to consider when the time comes."
Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester also said he was reluctant to give Austin a waiver, even though the retired commanding officer would be "a great secretary".
"I think this guy is going to be a great secretary," Tester told reporters. "I just think we should look at the rules."
Congress put aside its concern about a military officer's leadership of the Pentagon in 2016 when President Donald Trump bugged retired four-star Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, who at the time had only been out of uniform for three years.