Lloyd Austin is the leader our military needs right now
© Greg Nash

America’s system of checks and balances relies on safeguards to prevent the concentration of power. One of those safeguards is civilian control of the military, including the constitutional restriction that only Congress can declare war. Behind this is the notion that our military commanders should have limited influence over the decision to use force because, as I often say, if you’ve spent your life carrying a hammer, a lot of problems start to look like nails.

One important barrier between the leaders who authorize force and those who have spent their lives applying that force is the National Security Act of 1947, which requires a “cooling off” period for a secretary of Defense nominee who recently left military service. Under unique or extenuating circumstances, Congress may grant a waiver.

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. It requires a leader who is able to take a different view of challenges than a career military officer might take. I had to make the transition from combat leader to elected official and understand how different it can be. But I also took valuable lessons from my time in uniform that guide me to this day.

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Civilian leaders must not only consider our complex national security challenges, but apply those within the context of the social, fiscal, and political environment of the time. This requires both a broader view of the job and a willingness to communicate to a larger audience. During my time in the military, I worked with soldiers who understood this while still serving and those who have never grasped it, even years after taking off the uniform.

The question before Congress is not just how much time has passed since Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinSunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate US proposes new summit with Taliban on interim Afghan government Overnight Defense: White House open to reforming war powers | Army base might house migrant children | Fauci scolds military on vaccine MORE has taken off his uniform, but what’s in his heart and mind? I recently met with Lloyd Austin to try to answer that question.

Both Austin and I are former paratroopers. We spent our formative years in the 82nd Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg, an Army post named after a Confederate general. Austin opened up and recounted his experience as a Black commander at the Division in 1995 when the Army discovered neo-Nazi skinheads in the ranks.

He spoke about how he was personally affected after learning that troops on his base were responsible for the senseless killing of a Black couple from the community. He reflected on how that experience instilled in him a sense of urgency and a commitment to purging the ranks of white supremacists and their hate-filled ideology. We need a secretary who understands that addressing this issue is as important as training and equipping our forces for the challenges of tomorrow. I believe that Lloyd Austin is that secretary.

In the aftermath of white supremacists storming the Capitol, we are reminded just how deeply racism exists in our country. We also saw that current and former military personnel actively participated in the violent attack. It was a stark reminder that one of our most pressing national security challenges is the rise of extremism in the ranks, and it underscores the historic nature of Lloyd Austin’s nomination. Indeed, as I write this, the FBI is vetting national guard members deployed for the inauguration because of the potential for an “insider attack.”

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The next secretary of Defense will face many challenges, but no secretary leads the Pentagon alone and Lloyd Austin has made clear he knows what it takes to build the right team. After four years of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE’s administration — a period of strained civilian-military relations, lack of transparency by the Pentagon, and plummeting public confidence in the military — the leadership at the top will matter more than ever.

Last week, I had a glimpse into the heart and mind of Lloyd Austin. What I saw was a man who understands that our military is not just a formation of planes, tanks, and troops, but is a standard bearer of our values. A leader who understands that America is strongest when we lead with our values and channels the full strength of our diversity.

Leaders are judged by how they meet the challenges of the moment. Lloyd Austin is the leader our military needs right now, and I will vote to support his waiver.

Crow represents Colorado’s 6th District and is a member of the Armed Services Committee.