In defense of Lloyd Austin

In defense of Lloyd Austin
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Retired Army Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden says US combat mission in Iraq wrapping by year's end | Civilian casualties in Afghanistan peak amid US exit | VA mandates COVID-19 vaccine for health workers Biden, Iraqi prime minister to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq Top US general won't rule out airstrikes against Taliban after withdrawal MORE’s nomination as Defense secretary has attracted a tsunami of criticism from Republicans, Democrats and defense intellectuals. Its hurricane-force winds even provoked President-elect Biden to defend his choice in The Atlantic magazine, an unprecedented move, saying: “He is the person we need in this moment.”

Yet, the critics still howl. “OH COME ON. A General and Raytheon board?” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, in a Twitter post. “Possibly the worst of all options. Bad news for civilian control and any real distance from the military-industrial complex.”

These are legitimate concerns. First, Austin does have close ties to the military-industrial complex. He sits on the board of directors at Raytheon Technologies, a major defense contractor, but will have to relinquish the position in order to ascend to Secretary of Defense. Still, it raises important questions about potential conflicts of interest. 

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Second, appointing a retired four-star general violates our norm of civilian control of the military, enshrined by the Founding Fathers. Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinHouse erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role House passes host of bills to strengthen cybersecurity in wake of attacks Democrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker MORE, a Michigan Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, sums up many people’s concerns. In a statement, Slotkin says she has a “deep respect” for Austin, but “choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off. The job of Secretary of Defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military.” 

As a veteran, I can attest that taking off your uniform on Friday and returning on Monday with a suit does not make you 100 percent civilian. I spent eight years in the Army, and its impression is written in ink, not pencil. Gen. Austin spent 40 years in the service, and has lots of ink. 

However, the critics need to pipe down. Their complaints smack of hypocrisy. 

A Defense secretary with close ties to the defense industry is normal — so why the sudden fuss?  The last four defense chiefs — Ash Carter, Jim Mattis, Patrick Shanahan and Mark Esper — had strong ties to industry, too. So does Michèle Flournoy, a rival candidate for Biden’s Defense secretary. Raising red flags about Austin seems disingenuous. 

Concerns over healthy civil-military relations are real, but where was the outrage three years ago, when James MattisJames Norman MattisWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Trump says Gen. Milley 'last person' he'd want to start a coup with Overnight Defense: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dies at 88 | Trump calls on Milley to resign | House subpanel advances Pentagon spending bill MORE, a retired Marine general, was elevated to Secretary of Defense? Like Austin, Mattis was a former four-star general with more than four decades in uniform. Back then, members of Congress and defense intellectuals eagerly hailed Mattis with glowing enthusiasm. Now, many of those same voices bewail Austin as the “slippery slope” to despotism. 

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What explains this blatant hypocrisy? When asked, one outspoken critic of Austin who also endorsed Mattis, put it this way: “Mattis, like [retired Gen. George] Marshall, was an emergency situation; this isn’t.” But he neglects to explain what the “emergency” was in 2017. We were not in a new war. There was no 9/11 attack. It wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

It is disturbing that critics find Mattis somehow acceptable, but Austin not. Both are retired four-star generals with over 40 years of decorated service and exemplary combat records. Both are loved by their troops. Both serve on boards of big defense contractors: Austin with Raytheon and Mattis with General Dynamics (where he still sits). They are alike in every substantial way, and Austin’s nomination should go forward, just as Mattis’s did.

Critics of Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden says US combat mission in Iraq wrapping by year's end | Civilian casualties in Afghanistan peak amid US exit | VA mandates COVID-19 vaccine for health workers Biden, Iraqi prime minister to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq Top US general won't rule out airstrikes against Taliban after withdrawal MORE are shooting slings and arrows that are mostly theory in search of fact. A quick look at recent history reveals hypocrisy’s disgusting head. The only logical explanation for their hypocrisy is partisanship, corruption or racism.

Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a professor at Georgetown University and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.