WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary used his Tuesday appearance in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee to push back against concerns about civilian control of the military, as Congress prepares for an upcoming waiver vote.
Lloyd Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016, would require a waiver from both the House and Senate to be able to serve as defense secretary. The issue has dominated the headlines around Austin since his nomination was announced.
Before the hearing, those concerns were articulated by Kori Schake, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration who is currently with the American Enterprise Institute. Schake, who supported a waiver for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (who co-authored a book with her) in 2016, argued in a Bloomberg column that the situation is very different between the two men.
“I would not have done so if I hadn’t feared Donald Trump was a danger to constitutional governance domestically and to the liberal order internationally, and was surrounding himself with people manifestly unqualified for their positions and likely to be reckless in the performance of them. Thankfully, none of those conditions apply to the Biden administration,” she wrote.
“To argue that if one supported a waiver for Mattis, one must also support one for Austin is to argue that Joe Biden poses no less a threat to our country than Donald Trump. That just isn’t true.”
But former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, providing an introduction for Austin, said civilian-military concerns miss that Austin has previously shown he will defer to civilian leadership.
“The best military officers are those who understand the importance of civilian control, and Lloyd was one of those,” Panetta said. “I am absolutely confident that Lloyd Austin will follow in” the tradition of civilian control.
For his part, Austin used his opening remarks to stress he will uphold civilian control “as intended.”
“I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilians who will enable healthy civil-military relations, grounded in meaningful oversight,” he said. “Indeed, I plan to include the undersecretary of defense for policy in top decision-making meetings, ensuring strategic and operational decisions are informed by policy.
“I will rebalance collaboration and coordination between the Joint Staff and the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] staff to ensure civilian input is integrated at every level of the process. And I will make clear my expectation that the Pentagon work hand-in-glove with the State Department, supporting the work of our diplomats.”
Later in the hearing, Austin noted that the choices of Kathleen Hicks to be deputy secretary of defense and Colin Kahl to be undersecretary of policy will provide a strong basis for civilian control.
“You need to have the right people in the right positions [for the] decision-making process,” he said. “It makes all the difference in the world. ... I will make sure that we staff the positions with the right people who have the right experiences and are not afraid to provide their input, and I will empower them to make sure they have the flexibility to get the job done.”
Specifically, Austin also pledged the “key billets” on his staff will be filled by “experienced senior civilians” as opposed to current or retired military officials who served with him at U.S. Central Command or elsewhere.
For the most part, Austin’s comments seemed to mollify senators. One notable exception was Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Okla., who said he would oppose the waiver request.
Cotton, who stressed his decision had nothing to do with Austin as a person but rather the standard of having a recently retired leader confirmed to the top civilian job, said he had come to regret voting to give Mattis a waiver four years ago.
“I supported the waiver for Gen. Mattis, with reservations, four years ago, which I quickly came to view as a mistake, and I have since regretted, for that matter,” Cotton said. “Upon further reading on the historical record, I now believe the waiver for [Gen. George Marshall] in 1950 was also a mistake. Under no foreseeable circumstances can I imagine supporting such a waiver again.”
Earlier in the day, the House Armed Services Committee scrapped a planned open hearing for Jan. 21, an expected by not legally required step for Austin to receive a waiver from the House.
Aaron Mehta is deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.