However, because it has not been at least seven years since he retired from his military post, he requires a congressional waiver under the same law that created the Defense Department. Such waivers have been granted infrequently, and for good reason. Civilian control of our military is foundational to our democracy. With time away from service, an officer develops a broader range of relationships and expands his or her decision-making.
Why should Congress grant a waiver for this nominee? The answer couldn’t be clearer. While Austin’s confirmation would be a historic first and symbolize the culmination of the nearly 75-year march toward genuine integration of the department, it would neither be merely symbolic nor triumphant. His leadership would substantively answer the problems facing the military.
Our nation is racked with racial tension and rising white nationalism. The attack on our Capitol was an insurrection fueled in large part by the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, all of which espouse extreme white-supremacist views. These groups actively recruit from the U.S. military, and some of the rioters are former members of the armed forces.
A recent Military Times poll found one-third of all respondents had seen supremacist or racist ideology in the ranks. That same poll found service members viewed white nationalism as much of a national security threat as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and domestic Islamist terrorism.
The rise in white nationalism is disturbing by itself, and is accompanied by two concerning trends regarding people of color within the department. A lack of diversity in senior military and civilian ranks, as well as in coveted careers such as special forces, pilots and submariners, has led to Defense Department leadership that doesn’t reflect America.
While people of color comprise 43 percent of the military, only two of the 41 four-star generals and admirals are Black. Further, Black and Hispanic people are nearly twice as likely as White people to be tried in courts-martial, even when controlling for rank and education. This disparate prosecution of service members reflects either a gross level of racial bias or explicit racism.
The department’s policies have resulted in a lost generation of minority leadership.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) stated that “waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation.” This generation needs a leader like Austin.
Austin, the son of a mailman who grew up in Thomasville, Ga., was 10 years old when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. He understands the challenges facing our country; he has witnessed them his entire life.
After attending a segregated elementary school, he was allowed to attend a previously all-White high school. When he chose to go to West Point, he was again one of the few Black students. On his first assignment following commissioning, he was told “his number had come up” and was given a drug test simply because he was Black.
Through it all, he competed for opportunities inside the military. Much like President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Austin rose to command multinational forces in the major global conflict of his time, leading the coalition in Iraq. These experiences created relationships that extend beyond the military sphere and into the State Department, the interagency and the private sector. As Eisenhower showed, such experiences in one region translate around the globe.
Ultimately, civilian control of the military is not guaranteed by the law, but by the Constitution, which establishes the president as commander in chief. When Biden assumes office, he will be one of the longest-serving elected officials to become president, with 47 years of public service, including 12 years leading on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the ranking Democrat or chairman.
Biden’s administration is committed to a historically diverse Cabinet and restoring American global leadership. The president has a right to a Cabinet of his choice to accomplish these goals, one he has filled with civilian leaders with “unmatched experience and accomplishments,” not military leaders or inexperienced businessmen. Gone are Trump officials such as John Kelly, Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson. They will be replaced by civilian nominees Alejandro Mayorkas, Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken.
Biden has selected a defense secretary with the experience to meet complex challenges of the world while understanding the division at home, whether that’s in the South in Thomasville or in the North at West Point.
When Congress decides whether to make an exception to the law for Austin, I will vote yes based on my judgment of the content of his character. And I will welcome a new generation at the Defense Department.