Retired general Lloyd Austin is the second cabinet nominee of new President Joe Biden to gain approval and the first African American to become secretary of defence.
The US Senate has confirmed retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defence, the second cabinet nominee of new President Joe Biden to gain approval, and the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
Austin gained overwhelming support from both Biden's Democrats and opposition Republicans on Friday, despite having required a special congressional waiver because he was a recently retired military officer being placed in a job reserved for civilians.
As voting continued earlier today, the vote was an overwhelming 93 to 2 in the 100-member chamber, far more than the simple majority needed.
Austin first came under fire as CentCom chief for an Obama-era project that cost $384M to train a mere 150 Syrian rebels and lead to the rise of terror group YPG-led SDF, to the dismay of Turkey.
Biden seeking Pentagon stability
Biden is looking for Austin to restore stability atop the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defence and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration.
Austin's confirmation was complicated by his status as a recently retired general.
He required a waiver of a legal prohibition on a military officer serving as secretary of defence within seven years of retirement.
Austin retired in 2016 after serving as the first Black general to head US Central Command.
He was the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army in 2012 and also served as director of the Joint Staff, a behind-the-scenes job that gave him an intimate view of the Pentagon's inner workings.
The House and the Senate approved the waiver on Thursday, clearing the way for the Senate confirmation vote.
It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position. Let’s get to work. pic.twitter.com/qPAzVRxz9L— Lloyd Austin (@LloydAustin) January 22, 2021
Fight against Daesh
Austin, a large man with a booming voice and a tendency to shy from publicity, describes himself as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia.
He has promised to speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.
At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Austin said he had not sought the nomination but was ready to lead the Pentagon without clinging to his military status and with the full awareness that being a political appointee and Cabinet member requires "a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform."
As vice president, Biden worked closely with Austin in 2010-11 to wind down US military involvement in Iraq while Austin was the top US commander in Baghdad.
American forces withdrew entirely, only to return in 2014 after Daesh captured large swaths of Iraqi territory. At Central Command, Austin was a key architect of the strategy to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
I am enormously grateful for the service and the sacrifices of those who broke barriers before me—and although I may be the first African American Secretary of Defense, it’s my hope that I won’t be the last. pic.twitter.com/cT3fU6whmE— Lloyd Austin (@LloydAustin) January 12, 2021
Austin promises to 'rid our ranks of racists'
Austin has promised to surround himself with qualified civilians.
And he made clear at his confirmation hearing that he embraces Biden's early focus on combating the coronavirus pandemic.
"I will quickly review the department's contributions to coronavirus relief efforts, ensuring we are doing everything we can — and then some — to help distribute vaccines across the country and to vaccinate our troops and preserve readiness," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Under questioning by senators, Austin pledged to address white supremacy and violent extremism in the ranks of the military — problems that received relatively little public attention from his immediate predecessor, Mark Esper.
Austin promised to "rid our ranks of racists," and said he takes the problem personally.
China is the 'pacing challenge'
"The Defence Department's job is to keep America safe from our enemies," he said.
"But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks."
Austin said he will insist that the leaders of every military service know that extremist behaviour in their ranks is unacceptable.
"This is not something we can be passive on," he said.
"This is something I think we have to be active on, and we have to lean into it and make sure that we’re doing the right things to create the right climate."
He offered glimpses of other policy priorities, indicating that he embraces the view among many in Congress that China is the "pacing challenge," or the leading national security problem for the US.