CONGRESS ENACTED a law shortly after World War II to prevent military officers from becoming secretary of defense unless they had been out of the service for a number of years, and for good reason. Civilian control of the military is a core principle of democracy, and the promotion of generals to the top Pentagon post could encourage partisanship in the officer corps. In 2016, many Democrats affirmed this principle even as some of them reluctantly supported the waiver that allowed former Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to serve as President Trump’s secretary of defense — only the second such exemption in 70 years. So it’s not surprising that the announced intention of President-elect Joe Biden to nominate retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to the same post is raising questions, as it should.
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III was the first Black officer to command a division. He was the first Black officer to command a division in combat. This version has been updated.
Mr. Austin had a distinguished 41-year career, both as a commander and a path-breaker, before his retirement in 2016. He was the first Black officer to command a division in combat and the first to serve as a theater commander — and he would be the first Black secretary of defense. As head of Central Command, he developed the plan that eventually led to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And the terrorist emirate might never have established itself had the Obama administration followed Mr. Austin’s previous advice not to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq.
Like most other career officers, however, Mr. Austin lacks experience in managing some of the most important issues that face a defense secretary, including the development of weapons systems and long-range budgets, and the management of a sprawling civilian bureaucracy. He is deeply versed in the Middle East but not in Asia, where the rise of China is the most critical threat to U.S. national security. Moreover, his weaknesses as a senior officer — including a noted reluctance to communicate with the media and public, and sometimes bumpy relations with Congress — would be considerably more debilitating if carried over to the secretary’s post.
Mr. Mattis’s waiver from the law requiring a seven-year break from active duty won support because he was seen as capable of restraining the dangerous impulses of Mr. Trump — which the former general did until he resigned. Mr. Biden, who will be the most experienced commander in chief in more than 30 years, demands no such exceptional considerations. In choosing Mr. Austin, he passed over civilian candidates with considerable political and management expertise, including former defense undersecretary for policy Michèle Flournoy, who would have been the first female defense secretary.
Mr. Biden reportedly chose Mr. Austin in part because of a strong personal relationship dating back to the general’s term as commander in Iraq, when Mr. Biden managed the Obama administration’s policy there. Unlike his predecessor at Central Command, Mr. Mattis, Mr. Austin did not openly challenge White House policies in the region, including Mr. Obama’s caution about becoming more deeply involved in Iraq and Syria even after the rise of the Islamic State.
The president-elect is certainly entitled to pick a defense secretary he believes will implement his priorities. But if he proceeds with his nomination of Mr. Austin, Congress ought to insist that the new administration explain how it will restore regular order in a Pentagon roiled by Mr. Trump’s purges and mismanagement — and why installing a recently retired general as secretary would be a step in that direction.
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