President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as his secretary of defense is generating a wave of instant analysis on the merits of the pick, with a notable focus on the ramifications of having yet another recently retired general in the Pentagon’s top civilian job. Thus far, however, there has been very little discussion about how Austin views the world, how he would seek to reform the Pentagon and what his priorities would be. We should not be waiting for the confirmation hearings to begin asking these critical questions.
First, how would Austin manage the largest organization in the federal government? Austin would be responsible for over 2.8 million employees — including 2.15 million service members across all branches of the armed forces — and oversee a $740 billion defense budget, a sum that amounts to around half of the entire annual discretionary budget.
With this great power comes great responsibility, particularly in today’s fiscal environment. The U.S. economy is set to contract by over 4 percent this year. Washington is now running a record $3 trillion deficit. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the entire U.S. government to reevaluate what is truly important to the health, safety and security of the American people. Getting America’s own house in order will be the first priority for the incoming Biden administration.
Austin should be asked to explain how he sees his role given the country’s present circumstances. How will he balance modernization with maintaining readiness? Which legacy weapons systems would he retire? Are there any overseas bases that no longer make sense strategically, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley suggested? Given the predominance of the Asia-Pacific region in U.S. foreign policy going forward, should the U.S. Navy gain a larger share of the overall defense budget — and if so, which service will be downsized?
Any answer will garner its fair share of critics. But at a time when the nation’s economic health is at its most dire since the Great Depression, the next secretary of defense can’t avoid making difficult but necessary choices.
Were he to be confirmed, Austin would be the 7th secretary of defense to inherit the war in Afghanistan. As a former commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, he would also come into the job with direct experience managing it. Austin has provided optimistic assessments of the conflict in the past. In March 2015, Austin testified and outlined his optimism for Afghanistan’s future.
Nearly six years later, U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan at considerable risk as they back a government in Kabul as corrupt today as it was in 2015. While some may be tempted to ask Austin to provide a mea culpa over his past statements, time would be better served inquiring whether he has learned anything since his previous comments were made.
Does he recognize how costly the 20-year war has been to the U.S. military and to the U.S. taxpayer? Does he believe it is the U.S. military’s responsibility to prop up the Afghan government in perpetuity — and if so, what in the last two decades leads him to believe doing more of the same will have a different result? Would he support a complete U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, as spelled out in the U.S.-Taliban agreement, or would he recommend hitting the pause button and waiting for some illusory outcome?
Then there is the Middle East, Austin’s wheelhouse. As commander of U.S. Central Command, Austin witnessed firsthand how unsolvable the region can be. The United States has spent billions of dollars over three decades creating large, permanent forward-operating bases throughout the Persian Gulf, in part to prevent a regional hegemon from using oil as a weapon. Yet those very same installations have had the unintended effect of dragging the United States into the region’s various squabbles. A large U.S. footprint in the Middle East continues to provide states in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with an opportunity to enlist Washington into its own power struggles. The result is often confusion about how limited U.S. interests in the region really are.
The Middle East of 2020 is not nearly as strategically vital to the U.S. as the Middle East of the 1970s, when Washington’s core objective was to contain Soviet power. For all the investment, nation-building and deployments the U.S. has thrown into the Middle East over the last 20 years, it has received very little in return other than more problems. Would a Secretary Austin assist the Biden administration in breaking this vicious cycle? Does he believe stationing tens of thousands of U.S. troops in a part of the world whose collective gross domestic product is smaller than Germany’s is a wise use of U.S. military power?
Whoever is fortunate to hold the position of secretary of defense will have immense power at his disposal. Substantive policy matters, not personality traits, should guide the discussion.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at Newsweek.