General Lloyd Austin
In this Sept. 16, 2015, photo, US Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin III, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Image Credit: AP

Washington: US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, a former commander of the US military effort in Iraq, to be the next secretary of defence, according to two people with knowledge of the selection.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would make history as the first African American to lead the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops and the enormous bureaucracy that backs them up.

Austin, 67, was for years a formidable figure at the Pentagon and is the only African American to have headed US Central Command, the military’s marquee combat command, with responsibility for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria - most of the places where the United States is at war.

Austin is known as a battlefield commander. But he is less known for his political instincts - and has sometimes stumbled in congressional hearings, including a session in 2015 when he acknowledged, under testy questioning, that the Department of Defence’s $500 million programme to raise an army of Syrian fighters had gone nowhere.

He was selected over another front-runner, Michele A. Flournoy, who had served in senior Pentagon policy jobs and mentored a generation of women in national security who had pushed for her appointment as the first female defence secretary.

Biden, who is meeting with NAACP leaders Tuesday, was facing pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black officials to name an African American to run the departments of Defence or Justice. But he also skipped over Jeh C. Johnson, a former secretary of homeland security and former general counsel at the Pentagon considered by many to be a more politically astute pick for the first Black man to head the Defence Department.

Lower profile

It was unclear Monday night what tipped the scales for Austin. People close to the transition noted that, during the Obama presidency, Biden was unhappy with the high profile of the Pentagon, with generals like David Petraeus gaining near rock-star status, and the belief that the Pentagon rolled President Barack Obama into increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan.

Austin’s lower profile, those people suggested, may match with Biden’s hopes for a more muted Defence Department.

Still, Austin may face some pushback from lawmakers who feel strongly about civilian control of the military, and do not think a retired general can make the transition. Like Jim Mattis, who was President Donald Trump’s first defence secretary, Austin would have to get a congressional waiver to serve, since he has been out of the military for only four years and US law requires a seven-year waiting period between active duty and becoming Pentagon chief.

It is not assured that Austin would get the waiver; Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, had indicated after Mattis’ confirmation that he would oppose future waivers for the post. But for Reed to reject the first African American nominated to be defence secretary, after approving Mattis, would be notable.

Austin, who retired as a four-star general in 2016 after 41 years in the military, is respected across the Army, especially among African American officers and enlisted soldiers, as one of the rare Black men to crack the glass ceiling that has kept the upper ranks of the military largely the domain of white men.

Some 43% of active-duty troops are people of colour. But the people making crucial decisions are almost entirely white and male.

Supporters say Austin broke through that barrier thanks to his experience, intellect and the mentorship of a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who plucked him to direct the staff of the Joint Chiefs’ office.

After that, Austin continued to rise in the ranks. He was named commander of Central Command by President Barack Obama in 2013. Shortly after the 2020 election, Austin took part in an online session that Biden had with former national security officials. During that meeting, Austin impressed Biden, aides said. His selection was reported earlier by Politico.

Commander in Iraq

Austin became the top commander of US forces in Iraq in 2010, when the United States still had roughly 50,000 service members there. Much of the attention had moved on to other hot spots in the Middle East, but major questions still existed about the direction of Iraq, including whether any US forces would remain in the country beyond 2011. Austin and his commanders were convinced that a sizable force of more than 5,000 troops needed to remain to help the fledgling Iraqi military. But the commanders on the ground were ultimately overruled by the Obama administration, which pulled out all US forces by the end of 2011.

Years later that decision would be blamed for the Islamic State group’s ability to seize wide swaths of the country.

Austin’s style was far more reserved than some of the officers with marquee names who spent considerable time cultivating their public image and using the news media to manoeuvre policy fights with the administration.

Despite overseeing the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq after a bloody war, Austin showed little interest in the public-facing parts of the job. He avoided speaking publicly or with members of the news media, allowing others to take the lead in the messaging as the war came to an end.

Subsequently, as commander of all US forces in the Middle East, Austin was the principal military architect of the US-led campaign to oust the Islamic State group, after the militants seized territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq the size of Britain, in June 2014.

Austin is a graduate of the US Military Academy. He and his wife Charlene have been married for 40 years.

Austin’s elevation would be particularly poignant for Black West Point graduates: He was reared in Thomasville, Georgia, the same town that produced Henry O. Flipper, who was born a slave and in 1877 became the first African American graduate of the academy.