New York: Emphasising diplomacy as the bulwark of security in a changing world, US President-Elect Joe Biden has introduced retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin as his pick to lead the world’s most powerful military, as a man “feared by our adversaries” but who will “ensure that the use of force is our tool of last resort”.
The battle-hardened retired general, who will be the nominee for Defence Secretary, will bring his first-hand knowledge of the immeasurable cost of war and “help bring to an end forever wars”, Biden said Wednesday about the new challenges they will face.
Austin, who will be the first African-American to lead the military, will be taking over at a time when the US is facing a fast-changing global situation.
The main theatre of contention has shifted to the Indo-Pacific region where China is the emerging threat to the world order while the US is having to wind down the “forever wars” in the the Middle East and a part of South Asia where Austin had overseen military operations as the head of the US military’s Central Command.
Biden indicated that their approach to defence would emphasise diplomacy.
He spoke of Austin’s diplomatic skills in dealing with contentious factions of Iraq as well as the coalition partners and said: “He is just as committed as I am to rebuilding and modernising those alliances — from the Asia Pacific to Europe and around the world.”
As with many of his picks for key posts, Austin had worked closely with Biden and was associated with the administration of former President Barack Obama.
When Biden was charged by Obama to wind down US operation in Iraq, Austin was the commander of the US troops there.
Biden’s late son, Beau, had served under Austin as a military lawyer.
A para-trooper, Austin has also done stint as the army vice chief of staff.
Austin, unlike many generals like Jim Mattis, a former Central Command chief who was President Donald Trump’s Defence Secretary, and David Petraeus has kept a low public profile and there is little in his speeches or writings about an overarching global strategy or military doctrine.
Austin will, therefore, come in without public postures and unhampered in drafting a new defence strategy with Biden.
US law bans former military officials from becoming Defence Secretaries for seven years from their date of retirement to ensure civilian control of the military is not eroded.
Therefore, Biden will have to seek a waiver from Congress for appointing Austin, who retired in 2016 and there is opposition from Democratic Party legislators.
When Trump appointed Mattis as his Defence Secretary in 2017, he had to get a Congressional waiver, which was opposed by 17 Democratic Party senators.
Citing that, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said, although she had great respect for him: “I opposed a waiver for General Mattis and I will oppose a waiver for General Austin.”
As the head of the Central Command, his last job in a 41-year military career, Austin had interacted with Pakistani generals and he told a Senate panel in 2014: “I am very encouraged by the new military leadership in Pakistan.”
He had been a believer in Pakistan’s commitment to supporting the US and fighting terrorism, telling the same hearing: “From the military side of the house, that’s what I get, I think they’re sincere about it. I’m very encouraged by what I’m listening to and some of what I’m seeing. The jury’s still out, we have a long way to go, but our relationship is trending positive in a number of directions.”
Austin has served in Europe, but not in Asia and since India comes under the Indo-Pacific Command, he does not appear to have been involved with New Delhi.
With the US focus having shifted to the Indo-Pacific region, his lack of experience in the area could be a handicap if Biden wants to continue building up strategies and alliances there to face up to China’s challenge.
If confirmed by the Senate, Austin will be the second African-American to head a department with an international focus.
The first was Colin Powell, who was former President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State.
Austin’s designation has political significance as, according to Biden, 40 per cent of the 1.3 million US troops are people of colour.
“It’s past time the Department had leadership that reflects that diversity,” Biden said.
He is under pressure from the influential African-American group in Congress to appoint members of the community to key posts in his cabinet.
But he also faced demands to appoint a woman as the defence secretary and there was heavy lobbying for Michelle Flournoy, who was Obama’s Under Secretary of Defence for Policy to get the job.