The establishment media have short memories, but in 2017, when the newly elected Donald Trump selected James Mattis as his secretary of defense, there was a bit of Sturm und Drang we had to go through to get the former general a waiver from Congress.
The idea is that we shouldn’t have a Defense Department lifer overseeing the Pentagon — quis custodiet ipsos custodes and all that fun stuff. That was considered a big deal four years ago when Mattis was chosen as then-President-elect Trump’s first secretary of defense. As per the National Security Act of 1947, you need Congress to sign off on the very fact you can be approved if you’re less than seven years out of the military.
Here’s one Democrat voting for the waiver in 2016, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, qualifying his vote heavily: “Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation,” Reed said, according to The Washington Post. “Therefore, I will not support a waiver for future nominees, nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.”
This time around, Reed said he “will carefully review” the choice of former Gen. Lloyd Austin, the retired four-star Army general and former U.S. Central Command chief who presumptive President-elect Joe Biden wants to head up the Pentagon even though he has only been out of the military since 2016. (Though Reed added that “the preference would be for someone who is not recently retired.”)
Now, for those of you who have been taking notes, the reason Mattis got the pass was that, at some point in the process, the left realized he was the best of the options available and would potentially serve their purposes as a check on the then-incoming president. Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who served under Mattis in Iraq, may have best expressed the prevailing sentiment at the time: “Mattis stands out as a remarkably qualified leader, and I know he is someone who will actually stand up to President Trump. Before Trump realizes this himself, Democrats would be wise to have this debate and then grant an exemption to confirm him as our next secretary of defense.”
For Republicans, there are no particularly good reasons to extend the same waiver to Austin, and a lot of bad ones, at that. As for the Democrats, any hope they’d be unified on the issue was dashed when three members of the caucus indicated they’d be inclined to vote against granting the waiver.
“I have the deepest respect and administration for General Austin and this nomination, and this nomination is exciting and historic,” Blumenthal said.
“But I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” he added. “I will not support the waiver.”
“I didn’t for Mattis and I don’t think I will for him,” Tester said.
“I love Mattis, I thought Mattis was a great secretary. And I think this guy is going to be a great secretary of defense. I just think that we ought to look at the rules.”
Warren expressed similar sentiments.
“I have great respect for Gen. Austin. His career has been exemplary, and I look forward to meeting him and talking to him more, but I opposed a waiver for Gen. [James] Mattis, and I will oppose a waiver for Gen. Austin,” she told reporters.
Both Blumenthal and Tester were also among the 17 no votes for Mattis, who got the waiver by an 81-17 margin in the Senate and 268-151 margin in the House, according to The Washington Post. If both those senators, as well as Warren, vote against granting the waiver and all Republicans join them, Austin’s nomination would be essentially dead.
It’s not just senators, either. Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a rising star within the party, has expressed reservations about the nomination.
“I have deep respect for Gen. Lloyd Austin,” the Michigan representative tweeted Tuesday. “We worked together when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the Army, and when he was the CENTCOM commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off.
I have deep respect for Gen. Lloyd Austin. We worked together when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the Army, and when he was the CENTCOM commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off.
— Rep. Elissa Slotkin (@RepSlotkin) December 8, 2020
“The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military. That is why it requires a waiver from the House and Senate to put a recently retired military officer in the job,” she continued.
“And after the last 4 years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced. Gen. Austin has had an incredible career––but I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.”
And after the last 4 years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced. Gen. Austin has had an incredible career––but I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.
— Rep. Elissa Slotkin (@RepSlotkin) December 8, 2020
All told, these various statements from multiple Democrats indicate that this isn’t the slam dunk that Biden thought it was.
Yes, opposing Austin puts individuals in a difficult situation, particularly given the retired general would be the first black secretary of defense. For Democrats, this is especially true, considering the pressure being put on Biden to choose more racial minorities for his potential Cabinet.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, one of Biden’s most vocal surrogates and the man arguably responsible for bringing the presumptive president-elect’s candidacy back from the dead by endorsing him just before the South Carolina primary, has expressed disappointment with the dearth of black Cabinet choices and said late last month that “so far it’s not good,” according to The Hill.
However, as the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal argued Tuesday, there are deeper issues with Austin’s nomination that don’t necessarily have to do with just the waiver or the fact his race seems to have been a deciding factor in the pick.
“Gen. Austin was promoted to Commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) in 2013 and held the job for three years as Islamic State rampaged across Iraq and Syria,” they wrote. “His role in the failed program to train Syrian rebels deserves attention, as does the military’s apparent surprise at the fall of Mosul and swift rise of ISIS in 2014. His spokesman denied it, but Gen. Austin reportedly told the White House that ISIS was only ‘a flash in the pan.'”
“Another concern is that Gen. Austin’s experience is fighting land wars in the Middle East while the growing threat is a sea conflict with China,” the board continued. “GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher has it right that Gen. Austin is ‘a patriot’ but ‘not the pick if you believe China is an urgent threat.’ Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley recently predicted ‘a lot of bloodletting’ in the Pentagon to fund a more prepared Navy, but that will take political will from a defense chief.
“Michèle Flournoy, who many expected Mr. Biden to pick, has written on Pacific deterrence and making China ‘think twice,’ as she put it in a piece that floated a U.S. plan to sink China’s Navy within 72 hours.”
Of course, this might be by design, which is yet another red flag. When Axios first broke the story Austin was under consideration (and that Flournoy wasn’t a fait accompli), the outlet reported “[t]he Biden team wants to elevate diplomacy and de-emphasize the military as an instrument of national power.” Inasmuch as Flournoy would be more of a China hawk with an eye toward new strategies and Austin’s core competencies lie in the Middle East and a more traditional model of warfare, that’s not a fantastic portent.
And again, the reason why Mattis got the waiver in 2017 was because Democrats grudgingly viewed him as adult supervision. That’s not the case here; Austin is being picked because he cynically ticks off a number of boxes and Flournoy’s more proactive mindset isn’t popular with the potential Biden administration or progressives in the party.
There’s no reason to bend the rules for Austin when he’s neither sui generis nor simply an acceptable compromise.
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