Biden plans to tap Lloyd Austin, former Iraq commander, as Defense Secretary

By Helene Cooper and Jonathan Martin

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, a former commander of the U.S. military effort in Iraq, to be the next secretary of defense, according to two people with knowledge of the selection.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would make history as the first African American to lead the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops and the enormous bureaucracy that backs them up.

Austin, 67, was for years a formidable figure at the Pentagon and is the only African American to have headed U.S. Central Command, the military’s marquee combat command, with responsibility for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria — most of the places where the United States is at war.

Austin is known as a strong battlefield commander but is less known for his political instincts. He has sometimes stumbled in congressional hearings, including a session in 2015 when he acknowledged, under testy questioning, that the Department of Defense’s $500 million program to raise an army of Syrian fighters had gone nowhere.

Still, Austin, who retired as a four-star general in 2016 after 41 years in the military, is respected in the Army, especially among African American officers and enlisted soldiers, as one of the rare Black men to crack the glass ceiling that has kept the upper ranks of the military largely the domain of white men.

Supporters of Austin say he broke through that barrier because of his intellect, his command experience and the mentorship of a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who plucked him to run the staff of the Joint Chiefs’ office.

Shortly after the election, Austin took part in an online session that Biden had with former national security officials. His selection was reported earlier by Politico.

In choosing Austin, Biden bypassed Michèle A. Flournoy, a former top Obama administration DOD official, who would have been the first woman in the job.

Like Jim Mattis, who was President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, Austin would have to get a congressional waiver to serve, since he has been out of the military for only four years and U.S. law requires a seven-year waiting period between active duty and becoming Pentagon chief.

Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He and his wife Charlene have been married for 40 years.

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