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Lloyd Austin can lead — as a civilian

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Secretary of Defense carries awesome responsibilities that not just anybody can handle. While that may be a blinding statement of the obvious, the most difficult responsibilities handed to this unique Cabinet officer partially explain why presidents usually put a lot of thought into the selection. I’ve never had the privilege to serve in this capacity, but I have been fortunate to work for an exemplary Defense secretary — specifically, Dick Cheney — and I came to know a few others through the course of my career. That experience has yielded a composite sketch of the essential characteristics that are the most important to succeed in this difficult job.

The Pentagon is a complicated place with a sprawling maze of bureaucratic processes to manage resources, acquire things, and train and equip a proficient military force. Relationships with others in the national security establishment at the State Department, the intelligence community and the White House are critical. Mastery of Congressional relationships, interactions with the press, and an understanding of inter-agency dynamics can make daily challenges a little less daunting. But there are three factors that are the most important for anyone to be successful — the Defense secretary must have the complete trust and confidence of the president; must have the empathetic capacity to understand the human costs and consequences of military actions, and must constantly behave with integrity and inspire confidence in those who serve in the uniformed military and who place themselves in harm’s way in defense of our country.

While the nomination of Secretary-designate Lloyd Austin may have surprised more than a few people, careful consideration of these three factors suggests that President-elect Biden has made an inspired selection.

Lloyd Austin may well prove to be exactly the right person for this tough job at this time in our nation’s history.

First and foremost, there is nothing more critical to a Defense secretary than the confidence of the president. While the secretary is not technically in the chain of command of military capability, this unique Cabinet appointee provides guidance, insight, and informed opinion to reach decisions on such matters. The president-elect’s willingness to trust Austin’s judgement is critical.

Over the course of the last four years, three people served as secretary, or acting secretary, and watched their authority within the Pentagon evaporate because the president did not defer to their expertise or trust their judgment. James MattisPatrick Shanahan, and Mark Esper were all qualified in their own way and formulated agendas they believed were necessary to strengthen America’s military. Yet few at the Pentagon, in Congress, among our allies, or within the broader national security community believed that these men spoke for the president. Their influence and standing began to sputter from the beginning of their respective tenures.

That will not be the case for Austin. 

By all accounts, Austin’s relationship with the president-elect is rock solid, going back a decade, when Austin was Major Beau Biden’s commanding officer. They have, in the elder Biden’s words, spent “countless hours” together in the situation room. They have prayed together, and they have mourned together. As vice president, Biden regularly sought Austin’s advice, and Austin has one of the characteristics that Biden most demands in his advisors – he is calm and rational when the stakes are highest.

When Austin speaks, the disparate factions at the Pentagon will listen — and Congress, the media, our allies and adversaries will know that Austin’s words have the full weight of the president behind them. There is nothing more valuable for pushing through reforms, establishing policy and reminding opponents that he means what he says.

On the second point, the array of issues that demand the attention of the Defense secretary can distract attention from the human impact of decisions. Too often leaders inside the Washington bubble get mired in the abstractions of defense policy, procurement decisions, and parochial arguments, causing them to lose track of the real-world consequences of their actions. In the midst of conflict, leaders losing perspective can have far reaching consequences. Robert McNamara was dismissive of the human toll of the Vietnam War, a quagmire that haunted defense leaders for years thereafter.

This will not be an issue for Austin. As the former CENTCOM Commander, he has seen firsthand the cost of war. He has written condolence letters, grieved with the families of the fallen, and witnessed coffins flown to Dover Air Base. Aversion to losses won’t deter him from recommending a commitment of military force when needed — yet he will never do so without a thorough understanding of the risks he is asking the troops to take. The men and women in uniform will have the confidence that their leader will assure that such decisions will not be casual or cavalier when they are made.

Finally, lost in the larger discussion is the historic nature of Austin’s nomination and how much it will mean — not just for those who currently serve, but for that Black private first class, or, more critically, that Black 15-year-old who dreams of serving his or her country — to see such an accomplished American responsible for the nation’s military forces. Forty percent of the uniformed military are people of color. For the 20 percent of the U.S. military that is Black — including the 30 percent of women in the military who are Black, it’s not hard to imagine how much it will mean to be led by a Defense secretary who is Black. We have a way to go, but Austin will help move us toward the day when it is unremarkable that the leadership of the U.S. military truly reflects our nation’s rich diversity of talent.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the concern that many still call the nominee “General Austin,” and that his appointment seems to run counter to the principle of civilian control of the military.

We should be very mindful of the legitimacy of this concern. Every member of the U.S. armed forces are civilians who willingly step forward to volunteer for military service. Each of these uniformed military personnel pledges to support the Constitution and to protect the citizens of our country. The nation expects the military to be subordinate and to pursue national objectives established by the duly elected civilians among us who are accountable to our citizens. This is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that assures that decisions are made without fear of military intervention to force a political outcome. 

Nonetheless, the National Security Act of 1947 — from which Austin’s nomination would need a waiver — has a waiver clause for a reason. The Act did not assume that no recent retired military leader should serve as Defense secretary; rather, it posited that the Senate should have a compelling reason to confirm the president’s selection of a former military leader to serve, a reason that will reassure the public that the secretary will act in the nation’s best interest.

Lloyd Austin is that compelling reason.

He will have the standing and authority to manage the Pentagon and provide confidence to the Congress and the public that the national command authority is firmly under the civilian control of the president. He understands the imperative to balance our national interest, mindful of the human cost of conflict. And importantly at this time, he will inspire Americans that all of us in our increasingly more diverse communities have the opportunity to serve and to lead the nation.

At a time when the Department of Defense faces strains and challenges among the toughest faced in generations, such qualities are essential. He is the exactly the right person for the job.

Sean O’Keefe served as Secretary of the Navy for President George H.W. Bush and NASA Administrator for President George W. Bush. He is a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs.

Tags Biden Cabinet picks Civilian control of the military James Mattis Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Mark Esper Military Patrick Shanahan U.S. Department of Defense United States Secretary of Defense

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