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Biden's pick to lead Pentagon faces questions about whether he's right for the job

President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the Pentagon is already facing critics, who question his judgment while he served as the top US commander in the M...

Posted: Dec 10, 2020 7:42 PM

President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the Pentagon is already facing critics, who question his judgment while he served as the top US commander in the Middle East, an issue that could complicate Gen. Lloyd Austin's path to confirmation.

Biden has called Austin "the person we need in this moment," and other retired four-star generals have praised the "superb choice," but critics are asking if the former battlefield commander has the political chops to fight military budget cuts.

They are debating Austin's suitability for a role on the world stage and wonder whether his experience equips him to confront an increasingly assertive China, develop new tools in cyber warfare and other realms, and reassure allies skittish about US reliability.

All those questions are expected to make the decorated 40-year Army veteran's confirmation hearing a challenge. Austin will likely have to contend with these doubts even before then, as he meets with lawmakers next week and the Biden team pushes reluctant members of Congress to grant a waiver for the recently retired general to serve in the civilian leadership post.

'The theater of war'

Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday, Austin said he understands "the important role of the Department of Defense and the role that it plays in maintaining stability and deterring aggression and defending and supporting critical alliances around the world."

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a ringing endorsement of the 67-year-old nominee.

Biden "is making a superb choice in selecting General Lloyd Austin to be the next Secretary of Defense," Powell said in a statement, adding that he had mentored Austin during his military career. "General Austin has served splendidly at all combat and civilian levels in the Armed Forces. He has demonstrated his warfighting skills and his bureaucratic, diplomatic and political acumen." Biden and Austin "will be a great team," Powell said.

But fellow retired generals and former defense officials are criticizing Austin's record in Iraq -- touted by Biden, who said in an Atlantic magazine op-ed that Austin "got the job done. He played a crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the theater of war."

Austin did not publicly advocate keeping an additional US military presence in Iraq but had wanted to keep about 24,000 troops there after 2011 and was overruled, according to The Washington Post. An earlier agreement between the US and Iraq had determined that all US troops would be pulled out. Many have linked the withdrawal to ISIS' rise, which coincided with Austin's time at US Central Command, a period that witnessed the terror group's capture of major cities in Syria and Iraq.

'Divorced from reality'

Retired Gen. Tony Thomas, who served as deputy commander of Joint Special Operations Command during the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, took to Twitter in response to Biden's op-ed.

"POTUS-elect logic for selection is the 'successful' ending of the war effort in 2011???" Thomas wrote. "Did I dream about having to go BACK to Iraq and then the added bonus of Syria 2 years later to defeat ISIS?"

Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter has also criticized Austin's track record in Iraq, describing military planning for counter-ISIS operations as "a problem" in a 2017 article for Harvard University's Belfer Center.

"I admired Austin's desire to take the fight to the enemy," Carter said, "but the plan he presented to me in private was entirely unrealistic at that time. It relied on Iraqi army formations that barely existed on paper, let alone in reality."

Austin's assessment met with scathing public criticism, too. During a 2015 Senate Armed Services hearing, then-Chairman John McCain objected to Austin's relatively optimistic take on the fight against ISIS, despite the group's major battlefield gains.

"There haven't been any dramatic gains on either side," Austin said, about a year after ISIS had captured Iraq's second largest city, Mosul.

"I've never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert and what you are saying," McCain told Austin.

Low profile

In that same hearing, Austin became the public face of one of the administration's biggest failures in the fight against ISIS, admitting to Congress that a $500 million Pentagon program to train Syrians to fight the terror group had only "four or five" fighters remaining.

Outside congressionally mandated appearances, Austin's reticence, along with his lack of accessibility and transparency, allowed him to avoid expressing opinions about controversial Obama administration policies while in uniform, but critics say that leaves him untested for a role that brings intense media scrutiny.

While serving as the top military officer overseeing the Middle East, Austin rarely interacted with the media, unlike his predecessors or successors, who often took journalists with them on visits to the various campaign theaters -- moves that helped build public understanding for the mission.

Austin's staff once directed that cameras be removed from a 2014 talk he gave at the Atlantic Council think tank, one of his few public appearances.

Austin has kept a similarly low profile in retirement. Neither the President-elect, the vice president-elect nor Austin took any questions from the media during Wednesday's appearance.

That might have provided an opportunity to publicly address concerns that Austin doesn't have the background to handle the greatest security challenges facing the US, particularly China.

"A good secretary of defense also needs to steer the organization in the right direction: great-power competition with China. Nothing about Austin's background suggests he is properly equipped to do this," Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

"His experience in fighting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan is largely irrelevant to deterring and, if necessary, defeating a near-peer competitor," said Mastro, whose research focuses on Chinese military and security policy.

The Biden national security team stresses the importance of rebuilding alliances to face challenges from China, Russia and Iran and to deal with transnational threats like climate change. On Wednesday in Wilmington, Austin addressed Biden, saying, "I firmly believe that, as you said before, sir, that America is strongest when it works with its allies."

But many analysts say President Donald Trump's America First policy and political turmoil of the last four years have deeply undermined allies' confidence in the US as a diplomatic and military partner.

"It is the perception among allies and partners that US defense strategy will be increasingly handicapped by institutional dysfunctionality, political/societal polarization, an expanding gap between the outlook of policy makers and the larger US electorate about the role of the US military in the world," said Franz-Stefan Gady, a defense analyst at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Beyond inheriting a defense strategy that calls for prioritizing great power competition with Russia and China, Austin will face a huge roster of active challenges, including the nuclear challenge of North Korea, Iran's destabilizing regional activities and its own nuclear ambitions, and the continuing fight against Islamic extremism.

"That's a tall order," said Eric Edelman, a former assistant secretary of defense for policy, who notes that Austin will have to deal it all while facing a declining budget eroded by Covid-related spending and progressives in the Democratic Party pushing for cuts to defense.

"That will make the strategic challenge to him very great," said Edelman, now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Edelman said the military budget in the first three years of the Trump administration went up modestly, barely a 3% increase, and fell roughly 1.7% in real terms this year.

"Contrary to President Trump's assertions that his increases rebuilt the military, what they did was buy back some of the readiness lost in a decade of cutbacks," Edelman said. "It is nowhere near filling the gap between operations challenges we might face tonight, while at the same time investing in future capabilities that may take five, 10, 15 years to develop."

Those capabilities include cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, missile defense and space technology that China is pouring money into. "All those things are going to be important," Edelman said. "How do you do that, invest in all those capabilities and maintain an ability to fight today, if your budget is shrinking?" he asked.

A damaged institution

Austin will also face pressure as a result of Covid-19, a logistical and health challenge for the military as well as a budgetary one, said Gady.

Covid has contributed to increasing amounts of government debt and rising interest payments are "bound to impact the defense budget and discretionary spending in one way or the other," Gady said.

"US political and military culture are both built on this idea of an abundancy of resources that can be thrown at any problem," Gady added, "so Covid-19 might be reinforcing a bigger cultural shift that will need to happen for the US to stay competitive vis-a-vis other great power competitors."

Austin will face challenges inside the Pentagon as well, where analysts say he would inherit an institution strained by politicization under Trump. The President has gone through six acting or confirmed defense secretaries in four years, recently fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and followed up by ousting other senior officials and replacing them with political loyalists.

Austin is "going to inherit an institution that's been damaged," Edelman said.

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