General Austin: A Happy Choice for US Defense?

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)
13/12/20

Sources close to the newly elected president Joe Biden let it be known that the choice of the next defense secretary fell on former general Lloyd James Austin III. The trend, started in the last administration, of choosing a former general to fill the position of directing the Pentagon therefore resumes.

Austin is no ordinary general, he was the first African-American to command a division in combat and to have responsibility for an entire operational sector. Retired in 2016, Austin had emerged as the best candidate for Defense in recent days. It cannot be ruled out that Biden's staff lobbied to include a black person in that role, even if it was initially thought of as a woman, in this case the Undersecretary for Defense Policy of the Obama Administration Michèle Flournoy.

Austin's choice was also dictated by his excellent military career and the fact that he had previously worked with Biden when he was vice president. This collaboration began when the Obama administration decided to withdraw US forces from Iraq in 2011.

However, under American law, it is necessary to have been out of the military for at least seven years to hold the position of Secretary of Defense, unless an exemption is granted as was the case in the recent past for former Marine General Mattis.

In addition, some analysts have expressed perplexity in continuing with the line of the former generals at the head of the Pentagon, as they fear for the balance of civil / military power. Although some detractors say that Austin is a "mild" figure, certainly not a protagonist like Mattis, and absolutely in line with the policies of the future administration.

During his decades of service, Austin has always tried to avoid the limelight and rarely attended public events, such as press conferences or discussions of think tank.

In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed him to lead the Central Command, responsible for all US military operations in the Middle East. In this capacity, he oversaw operations against ISIS when it occupied large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

While in 2015 he had to give justifications about the role of American forces in Syria, officially present to train secular anti-government militias but at the same time active against the Islamic state.

Another controversy looming over the Command at the time was the accusation that it downplayed intelligence reports on the threat posed by ISIS and painted too positive a picture of the progress of US military efforts.

Austin retired after 41 years of service and joined the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, one of the Pentagon's largest contractors. This could represent a potential conflict of interest, according to progressive lawmakers, who have raised concerns about appointing a defense secretary who has ties to the industry. 

In conclusion, as observers, the main question is Austin's ability to impose a military's point of view on the future American administration, highlighting the possible consequences of wrong choices.

We still remember the disasters, in foreign policy, of the eight years of government of the Obama / Biden pairing (war in Libya, birth of ISIS, Turkish expansionism, just to name a few) and, this time, it is hoped that the future president, with all its staff have treasured the mistakes of the past.

Photo: US DoD