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From Iraq to Raytheon: Who is General Lloyd Austin, Joe Biden's Defence Secretary Pick?

© AFP 2022 / Paul J. RichardsCommander of US Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin III conducts a media briefing on Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military effort against (IS) Islamic State group, on October 17, 2014
Commander of US Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin III conducts a media briefing on Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military effort against (IS) Islamic State group, on October 17, 2014 - Sputnik International
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A major position in the likely incoming administration has now been filled. As the presumptive winner of the 2020 US general election, former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be following his pledges to appoint a historically diverse cabinet. But will this have lead to any significant changes in policy?

Joe Biden has selected retired Army General Lloyd Austin to serve as his defense secretary if the presumptive 2020 winner takes the oath of office in January.

According to The Associated Press, Biden offered and Austin accepted the post on Sunday. The position was reportedly accepted on condition of anonymity because the selection was not yet formally announced.

Austin, who retired in 2016, served as the first Black commander of US troops in the Middle East and if confirmed, would be the first African American to head the Pentagon. 

Who is he?

Graduating from the US Military Academy in 1975 graduate at West Point, Austin has served in uniform for 41 years.

The 67-year old hails from Thomasville, Georgia, and holds a master’s degree in education from Auburn University and another MA in business management from Webster University.

Austin served as vice chief of staff of the Army and was the last US commanding general in Iraq before the full withdrawal in 2011. During his tenure in the Middle East, he worked closely with then-Vice President Biden.

© AP Photo / Khalid MohammedJoe Biden, left, is seen with Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011
From Iraq to Raytheon: Who is General Lloyd Austin, Joe Biden's Defence Secretary Pick? - Sputnik International
Joe Biden, left, is seen with Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

Between 2013 and 2016, the four-star general served during the Obama administration as the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for overseeing activity in the Middle East, Central Asia, and part of South Asia.

He was also the primary military architect of the US-led assault on the Daesh in Iraq and Syria. During this time, he was given $500 million to put together a rebel army in Syria against the terrorist group. The project failed spectacularly, only managing to recruit around 60 fighters of the 5,400 the Pentagon intended.

Under pressure from Congress, Austin admitted that only “four or five” Syrian rebels that the United States had trained to combat the self-declared Islamic State were actually in Syria.

During his tenure, Centcom was also accused of skewing intelligence on Daesh in order to make the extremist group appear weaker and portray US action against them seem more effective than it actually was.

The Pentagon’s inspector general later cleared Austin of the charge of deliberately falsifying intelligence.

A Revolving Steel Door

Despite the nomination of the first Black defense secretary being lauded as a progressive victory, General Austin's position on the board of Raytheon Technology - the second-largest defense contractor on Earth - could be a sticking point for Democrats who want to see an administrative shift away from military-industrial picks.

If his selection is ultimately confirmed, this would give an arms manufacturer official direct oversight of the nation's $750 billion annual defense budget.

© AFP 2022 / ROSLAN RAHMANTrade visitors stand in front of a Raytheon booth during the Singapore Air Show. (File)
From Iraq to Raytheon: Who is General Lloyd Austin, Joe Biden's Defence Secretary Pick? - Sputnik International
Trade visitors stand in front of a Raytheon booth during the Singapore Air Show. (File)

This may also clash with Biden's own policy pledges. During his primary campaign, the former vice president promised to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and drop US support for the monarchy's continued bombardment of Yemen.

However, Raytheon is a key sup­pli­er of armaments to US & Saudi intervention in Yemen and has "lob­bied aggressively in opposition to curbs on arms sales to the Sau­di-led coali­tion", according to In These Times reporter Sarah Lazare.

Jon Rainwater, executive director of advocacy group Peace Action, said on Monday that Austin's position in Raytheon is no "side issue" given the firm's active stake in ongoing world conflicts.

"Biden will quickly face calls to block arms sales to the [United Arab Emirates] that include Raytheon missiles", he said.
"The revolving door between Pentagon and industry can easily impact policy", Rainwater added.

A Historic Selection?

Joe Biden came under increasing pressure from Democratic Asian, Black, and Latino lawmakers to uphold his promise to form the most diverse cabinet in US history.

Michele Flournoy, who was for a long-time believed to be the front-runner, would have been been the first woman to assume the post of defense secretary. Biden also considered Jeh Johnson for the role, a former Pentagon general counsel who previously worked as secretary of homeland defense under President Obama.

Even though Congressional caucuses back the appointment, his nomination will require a bypassing of the National Security Act of 1947, which established that “a person who has within ten years been on active duty as a commissioned officer in a Regular component of the armed services shall not be eligible for appointment as Secretary of Defense".

Despite the limitations being dropped to seven years in a 2008 ruling, General Austin still falls within the law's prohibition period, which is intended to ensure civilian control over the military.

© AP Photo / Evan VucciSecretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, right, listen as President Donald Trump
From Iraq to Raytheon: Who is General Lloyd Austin, Joe Biden's Defence Secretary Pick? - Sputnik International
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, right, listen as President Donald Trump

In regular circumstances, this would be a historic anomaly and a serious diversion from legal precedent, and in many ways, it still is considering the waiver has only been made twice before in US history.

However, the same exception was made four years ago for James Mattis, the retired Marine general who was selected as President Donald Trump's first secretary of defense.

Before Mattis, the waiver was only given once before to George C. Marshall in his 1950 selection.

During the 2016 confirmation hearings, Democratic Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed said that he would oppose any future waivers, as Congress should give them "no more than once in a generation".

Therefore, Austin is likely to face resistance from those in Congress who believe in keeping a clear demarcation between the Pentagon's civilian and military leadership, especially since Democrats have criticised Donald Trump for filling civilian posts with former military personnel.

Why Austin?

So far, Gen Austin has largely avoided the public eye, and has been seen in few interviews, nor does he often speak publicly about military operations.

He does, however, have a strong personal relationship with the presumptive president-elect. So far, all of Biden's national security nominees have been close to him for some time and have developed a personal trust.

While Biden may be prioritising personal loyalty, going into the confirmation process could prove problematic. As Rainwater predicted, there are now "double whammy" concerns over non-civilian oversight of the Pentagon, as well as a "mega-contractor who benefits from some policies and whose profits are threatened by others".

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