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Biden’s Pentagon pick signals his desire to avoid foreign policy battles of the past

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III attend a ceremony welcoming troops home at Fort Bragg on April 8, 2009. (Stan Gilliland/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III as defense secretary signals the incoming administration’s intent to dictate national security policy from the White House and avoid the foreign policy battles of the Obama administration by placing at the helm of the Pentagon a former officer who has shunned Washington’s political wars.

Biden on Tuesday announced his selection of Austin, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and later oversaw the battle against the Islamic State as head of U.S. Central Command. Austin, who would become the nation’s first African American defense secretary, will require a congressional waiver to assume the position because he has not been retired from the military the required seven years.

The surprise pick abruptly ended the hopes of other front-runners for the job: defense policy expert Michèle Flournoy and former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson.

The president-elect cited his admiration for Austin’s performance as a battlefield commander, his character, and his record of breaking racial barriers as he rose through the military ranks.

“He is the person we need in this moment,” Biden wrote in the Atlantic.

But the selection of Austin, who has avoided the spotlight in and out of uniform and has often been reluctant to share his views even in private with military colleagues, may be equally rooted in Biden’s desire to ensure that the Pentagon, with its $700 billion budget and sprawling workforce, doesn’t dominate national security decision-making as it has in the past.

The choice of Austin is also born of Biden’s scar tissue from clashes with the military dating back to the early days of the Obama administration, when as vice president he lost a fierce debate over military leaders’ plan to send as many as 40,000 new troops to Afghanistan.

A person familiar with the president-elect’s thinking said that Biden — who developed a relationship with Austin during his days overseeing U.S. operations in Iraq — was looking for a partner he knows who can carry out his foreign policy vision, rather than someone who might come to the job pushing a foreign policy doctrine of their own. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the selection.

Unlike other retired four-star generals, such as veteran commander David H. Petraeus and fellow former Centcom commander and former defense secretary Jim Mattis, Austin hasn't written books or aired strong policy positions at think tanks, making it less likely that he will use his platform as the Pentagon’s top civilian to push a certain set of priorities that might be out of step with those of the president-elect.

Such a dynamic could give other incoming leaders, including national security adviser designee Jake Sullivan and secretary of state designee Tony Blinken, greater ability to shape the trajectory of American foreign policy as it pivots away from the upheaval of the Trump administration.

But even as Biden made the nomination official, some lawmakers expressed their discomfort with granting Austin a waiver — which would be only the third in U.S. history — while national security experts expressed concern about the potential for Biden and his closest aides to dominate important internal debates.

“Absolutely, a president shouldn’t pick a Cabinet secretary who’s going to fight him at every turn — that would be crazy,” said Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who served at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “But you also need someone who will say, ‘Sir, that doesn’t make sense. Let me tell you why.’ ”

An Alabama native who was raised in Georgia and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975, Austin headed the XVIII Airborne Corps before becoming the No. 2 officer in Iraq in 2008, where he oversaw the day-to-day operations of a sprawling force of more than 150,000 U.S. and coalition forces. During that period, security improved dramatically despite a shrinking American footprint and a series of deadly attacks by Iranian-linked militias.

Biden to name retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

In 2011, after being elevated to the top job in Iraq, Austin initially advocated an ongoing force of close to 30,000 as U.S. officials contemplated a possible year-end deadline for withdrawing troops. But he quickly yielded to pushback from Washington, where officials were hoping to shift away from the Middle East, whittling down his proposals for a residual force. In the end, the Iraqi parliament’s refusal to approve a deal allowing U.S. troops to stay obviated those plans, forcing Austin to oversee a hurried operation to pull out the entire U.S. force in a matter of months.

In announcing his selection of Austin, Biden trumpeted his role in the 2011 withdrawal, but did not mention that the Iraqi army with which Austin’s forces partnered largely collapsed less than three years later, ceding a third of the country to the Islamic State. The following year, Austin oversaw a disastrous program to build a partner force in Syria that produced few trainees at a cost of $500 million.

Austin’s quiet deference to the wishes of the White House was in sharp contrast to what unfolded just a few years earlier on Afghanistan, where a passionate 2009 debate over troop levels spilled into public view and, ultimately, soured the then-vice president’s view of the Pentagon.

Afghanistan shattered Joe Biden’s faith in American military power

Biden came to believe that the military’s top generals and then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in their effort to address a dangerous deterioration of security across Afghanistan, had boxed President Barack Obama into backing their approach through a relentless campaign that sought to win over Congress, the media and big, influential foreign policy think tanks.

Under pressure, Obama settled on a war strategy that was largely in line with his generals’ ambitious surge of troops. That debate and the way it was conducted made a strong impression on Biden.

Among the most notable offenders, in Biden’s view, was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal backed Biden in his effort to unseat President Trump in 2020. But in a 2009 speech at a London think tank McChrystal suggested that Biden’s preferred approach of a small troop footprint was “shortsighted.”

McChrystal’s comments drew a rebuke from the White House. “The military doesn’t [screw] around with me,” Biden told several aides during the Afghanistan debates, according to former White House officials. “I’ve been around too long.”

A month later, the McChrystal strategy largely won the day, though it proved unsuccessful in the long run.

In selecting Austin, Biden may be seeking to prevent a repeat of the situation that resulted from Obama’s choice of a strong, well-connected and independent defense secretary in his first term.

Former officials who have worked with Austin described him as disciplined and often taciturn, someone who will argue his position privately but is unlikely use his influence in Washington to try to steer the policy debate in his favor with think tanks or on the Hill.

At U.S. Central Command, a solitary general prepares to step down

Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations at Duke University, said the pick signaled that the Biden team is placing a premium on individuals with whom the president-elect has an existing relationship and whom he trusts.

He said Austin fell in a different category than former military leaders like Mattis, Petraeus or McChrystal, who are known as “change-makers” in military ideas or strategy. “That’s not his reputation,” he said of Austin.

Feaver said it would be important for Austin, as a retired general, to go beyond his circle of Army contacts and appoint strong civilians to his immediate staff and the Pentagon’s policy operation.

Austin’s selection comes as the Defense Department and Congress try to reorient the U.S. military toward competition with China and away from the counterinsurgency wars that have dominated U.S. military operations for more than two decades.

The fact that Austin never served in a senior role in the Pacific has raised questions about his ability to reshape the Defense Department for a possible future conflict with the Chinese military, where the Navy would almost certainly play a more important role than the Army.

“This decision just shows a lack of seriousness about a whole-of-government approach to the China challenge,” said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Republican staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If you had told me he had served as the U.S. Army Pacific commander or U.S. Forces Korea commander . . . I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he understands the region. I’d still say we should have a civilian in that job.”

The Pentagon is also reshaping its operations to counter Russia. Austin has served in Europe, where the U.S. Army would be a critical component of any theoretical conflict with Moscow, but his senior operational roles have been in the Middle East.

John Hudson, Dan Lamothe and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.