Joe Biden set to appoint first African-American as defence secretary

Joe Biden set to appoint first African-American as defence secretary

US president-elect Joe Biden is expected to choose Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star army general, to be his secretary of defence.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gen Austin would be the first African-American to be appointed to the position.

“He’s travelled with Biden extensively; Biden likes him,” a person familiar with the decision told the Financial Times.

The news was first reported by Politico.

The decision confounded many analysts who had expected Mr Biden to select Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official who would have been the first female defence secretary.

A person familiar with the decision said: “It’s a complicated choice: Biden has gone for comfort over expertise.”

Gen Austin spent almost 41 years in military service, rising to lead US Central Command, America’s military operations in the Middle East, for three years before retiring in 2016. 

The West Point graduate was also vice chief of staff of the army in 2012 and has commanded troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was praised for maintaining security while drawing down troops.

Barack Obama, former US president, nominated Gen Austin as Centcom commander at the end of 2012 after falling out with his predecessor Jim Mattis over Iran. 

Some serving and former US defence officials were lukewarm about the appointment.

One former defence official said Gen Austin “is a fine gent and would be a good army secretary” — suggesting he had been over-promoted.

One serving defence official described Gen Austin as “the quiet type” but said it was “important and groundbreaking” to appoint an African American to lead the Pentagon for the first time.

Colin Powell made history as the first black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George HW Bush in 1989. But very few African Americans have reached the upper echelons of the Pentagon following Mr Powell.

While African Americans make up 19 per cent of enlisted ranks in the US military, the figure drops to 8.9 per cent of officer ranks, according to Pentagon figures released this year.

Gen Austin’s nomination is likely to encounter controversy, however, because he retired from active service only four years ago. This means he would require a special waiver from Congress to take up the position, as US law stipulates any candidate must spend at least seven years out of active duty in order to serve as defence secretary.

Kori Schake, an expert in civil-military relations at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, said it would be “a mistake” for Congress to grant the waiver again. “Once is an exception, two . . . are a trend,” she said, referring to Congress waiving the rule when Donald Trump appointed Gen Mattis as his first secretary of defence.

“It suggests the Biden administration hasn’t thought much about defence, and doesn’t want a cabinet secretary who’ll be an active advocate for the department,” she said, adding Gen Austin had no expertise on Asia. 

Gen Austin may also encounter resistance from progressive quarters over his ties to the defence industry. He joined the board of Raytheon Technologies, the aerospace and defence company, after his retirement from the military.

He is also on the board of directors for Nucor Corporation, a steel manufacturing company that bills itself as North America’s largest recycler, and Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which runs 65 hospitals with revenues of $18.5bn last year.

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