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Opinion Of course Lloyd Austin is well-qualified to be defense secretary

Retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Earl G. Matthews served as principal deputy general counsel of the U.S. Army and as deputy assistant to President Trump and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council.

I did not vote for President-elect Joe Biden and would have preferred that President Trump nominate the next defense secretary. However, I bristle at the notion that Biden’s nominee, retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, is unqualified or appreciably less qualified than others considered for the job. Implicit in this argument is that Austin somehow lacks the strategic depth or innate capacity to lead the department, which he has ably and honorably served for more than 40 years. This is wrong.

One common argument against Austin is that because he spent most of his time as a general engaged in the Middle East, he supposedly lacks the intellectual firepower or geopolitical shrewdness to address the threat posed by China. But I can assure you that neither free navigation in the South China Sea nor the security of the Third Island Chain will be imperiled merely because a former Army general is defense secretary.

The idea that the defense secretary must be an expert on China, or an Asia policy wonk is without merit. There is a reason we have a Senate-confirmed assistant defense secretary focused on Asia and an undersecretary of defense for policy to assist the Pentagon’s leader. The defense secretary does not need to be a regional specialist. He or she must be a generalist with a broad strategic vision ready to meet any global challenge.

Most important, they must be a leader par excellence with a proven track record of successfully helming large, complex organizations. Austin is that strategic leader. With due respect to others considered for the job, he did not spend his formative professional years at a think tank or a law firm. Instead, he has successfully led at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. None of the other candidates Biden reportedly considered for the job have as much experience leading large organizations as Austin.

As a general officer, Austin led joint forces in combat at the one-, two-, three- and four-star ranks. He has been an Army division commander, an Army corps commander, a multinational corps commander, a theater commander and a geographic combatant commander. As the three-star director of the Joint Staff, he managed its daily operations and oversaw the provision of the best military advice to our civilian leaders. As the four-star vice chief of staff of the Army, Austin in effect led and supervised the daily operations of the U.S. Army, the single-largest component within the Defense Department (larger, in fact, than the Department of Homeland Security). He also developed and defended budgets before the defense secretary, the Office of Management and Budget and Congress. The entirety of his professional life has prepared Austin for this job.

Moreover, should the next administration decide to pivot our defense strategy to China and the Indo-Pacific region, we cannot do so if we are bogged down by a reinvigorated Iran or resurgent Sunni extremists in Iraq or the Levant. Austin is uniquely suited to set priorities and allocate resources away from the Middle East toward Asia. Aware of the tendency of generals to request more forces than they need, Austin can credibly say no to resource requests by the current commander or other generals in the Middle East (based, of course, on conditions on the ground to ensure the United States is ready and able to deter or respond to violent extremism).

Lastly, as a Black Republican who was appointed to senior roles at the Pentagon and the White House, I view Austin’s candidacy through a unique prism. I’m perpetually suspicious of the “race card,” but in this unique instance, Austin’s race matters. If Austin — given his background and experience — is not well-qualified to be defense secretary now, then no Black person in the future will ever be deemed qualified by the foreign policy establishment.

As we laud the rise of White women into prominent security roles — such as Michèle Flournoy, another defense secretary candidate considered by Biden — we should also bemoan the paucity of both Black women and men in these roles. As a military officer assigned to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, I often interacted with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy during the Obama administration. During my time there, I could not help but notice that the upper and mid-level ranks of that office were nearly all White, devoid of virtually any senior Black Americans with substantive policy responsibilities — even in an administration led by a Black president. Service in that office, therefore, should not be a prerequisite to the defense secretary’s suite.

We have had three Black national security advisers in our history: Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Susan E. Rice. Neither party has done a great job of creating a pipeline of Black national security professionals to follow them. Like Powell and Austin, I gained entree into senior national security ranks first through service as a military officer. Surely, such service cannot disqualify candidates when other avenues are too frequently closed, especially in administrations that supposedly value diversity and inclusion.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: Gen. Lloyd Austin has a chance to fix his legacy on Syria

Oriana Skylar Mastro: The real reason Biden’s pick for Pentagon chief is the wrong choice

David Ignatius: Lloyd Austin’s qualities may have worked for him as a general, but not as defense secretary

Oriana Skylar Mastro: Yes, North Korea could drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats need to defend norms. They should oppose Lloyd Austin’s nomination.

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