President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to head the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, focused his opening statement Tuesday on his status as a recently retired Army general, which would disqualify him from being secretary of defense without a congressional waiver of a law that prohibits a military officer from holding the job within seven years of leaving the service.
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Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin, who served 41 years in the Army, vowed to surround himself with qualified civilians and include them in policy decisions. He said he has spent nearly his entire life committed to the principle of civilian control over the military.
“I know that being a member of the president’s Cabinet — a political appointee — requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” Austin said. “I would not be here, asking for your support, if I felt I was unable or unwilling to question people with whom I once served and operations I once led, or too afraid to speak my mind to you or to the president.”
Biden’s nominees to lead his national security team promised a turnabout from the Trump administration’s approach on the world stage, saying Tuesday they would keep partisan politics out of intelligence agencies, restore an emphasis on cooperating with international allies, and push for a stronger American leadership role.
Putting his national security team in place quickly is a high priority for Biden, not only because of his hopes for reversing or modifying Trump administration policy shifts but also because of diplomatic, military and intelligence problems around the world that may create challenges early in his tenure.
Austin said he understands why some have questioned the wisdom of putting a recently retired general in charge of the Defense Department.
“The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil,” he said.
Austin pledged that the Pentagon will “work hand-in-glove” with the State Department, supporting the work of diplomats.
Austin said he views China as the leading international issue facing Biden’s national security team.
The most controversial of Biden’s nominees for national security Cabinet positions may be Austin, a former head of U.S. Central Command who would be the first Black secretary of defense. Austin will need not only a favorable confirmation vote in the Senate but also a waiver by both the House and the Senate because he has been out of uniform only four years.
The House majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, indicated Tuesday that the full House would consider an Austin waiver bill on Thursday.