Austin Promises Healthy Civilian Control At DOD
“I look forward to working with the chairman, but I have no desire to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” the retired general told senators.
Lloyd Austin used his Tuesday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to reassure lawmakers that his confirmation as defense secretary would not damage the bedrock American principle of civilian control of the military.
"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,” Austin, who retired as a four-star general in 2016, said during his opening statement.
President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee gave a smooth and inoffensive performance under direct but politely deferential questioning from lawmakers on Tuesday afternoon. There is little dispute on either side of the aisle that the former U.S. Central Command leader is eminently qualified for the post, but his fate remains cloudy thanks to a law requiring Congress to waive the prohibition on military officers serving in the post until seven years after their retirement; In 2017, Congress provided a similar waiver for President Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis.
But even those lawmakers who stated from the dais that they will oppose granting him that waiver assured him that their vote was not a judgment on his qualifications. And several prominent lawmakers have explicitly said that they will consider the vote on the waiver separately from the vote on his confirmation, suggesting that some of the public opposition to granting the second waiver in four years may still translate into “yea” votes.
“My vote against a waiver that would allow you to serve as secretary of defense has everything to do with restoring the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military and nothing to do with you, your qualifications, or your character,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a combat veteran, said during Tuesday’s hearing. “I pledged to my colleagues that if they choose to pass an exception to statute I will consider your nomination fairly and on its merits.”
Some lawmakers seemed to make a concerted effort to refer to Austin as “Mr. Austin” rather than “Gen. Austin,” although some did refer to him by his former rank. During a three-and-a-half-hour hearing, Austin was pressed repeatedly on how he would ensure the appropriate balance between relative power of the civilian and military elements of the Pentagon.
Under President Trump, and in particular under Mattis, officials faced fierce criticism for empowering the uniformed Joint Staff over the civilian Office of the Secretary of Defense. Austin insisted that he “understand[s] the difference” between the two offices, and between the kind of advice that they are required to give the president. And he specifically pushed back on criticism that because both he and the current Joint Chiefs Chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, come from an Army background, the Army would get preferential treatment during his tenure.
“I look forward to working with the chairman, but I have no desire to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” Austin said.
Austin, who is known for having an aloof relationship with the press during his time as CENTCOM commander, also promised to develop “a good relationship with the media and prove them the access and the information required to do their job of reporting to the American people.”
Multiple lawmakers pressed Austin on the issue of white supremacy and other extremist ideologies in the ranks of the military. Multiple current and former military members have been arrested in connection with the armed assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6.
“I don’t think you can ever take your hand off the steering wheel here,” Austin said.
It was the closest that lawmakers came to discussing the historic nature of Austin’s nomination. Should he be confirmed, Austin will become the first-ever Black secretary of defense — part of the president-elect’s vow to select a cabinet that “looks like America.” This has become a factor in the political wrangling over whether Congress should, once again, override its own law restricting former generals from serving as defense secretary.
Both the House and the Senate must approve the waiver for Austin. Some House members who are themselves military veterans and had expressed reservations about granting him the waiver have begun to advocate for his confirmation, suggesting that the firestorm of media coverage and public concern over the issue may be petering out on the Hill.
“The spirit of civilian control has more to do with the heart and mind of a specific nominee, rather than the sheer passage of time since he or she took off the uniform,” Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said in a Tuesday op-ed for The Hill.
Perhaps Austin’s most passionate answers on Tuesday came on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Pressed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Austin pledged to study taking the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the chain and command and putting them under the authority of a specially-trained military prosecutor.
He also promised to “refurbish” defense alliances damaged under Trump’s often abrasive foreign diplomacy.
“If confirmed, I’ll look forward to reestablishing some of the critical alliances and partnerships that we have to make sure that we keep them on board as we move forward fast,” Austin said.
The Senate also held hearings for Biden’s choice for secretary of state, homeland security secretary, and director of national intelligence on Tuesday, but Senate leaders have given no public indication yet when they may vote on the nominees.
Biden is scheduled to be sworn in on Wednesday.