Newly elected US President Joe Biden has nominated 67-year-old retired Army General Lloyd Austin as a candidate for the post of Secretary of Defense. He could become the first African American to head the Pentagon if approved by the Senate. The team of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy should know about General Austin's track record, his role in foreign policy, in order to have an idea of where Ukraine belongs to the priorities of the White House.
Paradoxically, even many Americans don't know Lloyd Austin. No wonder, the people called him "the invisible general." He refrains from public statements and comments for the press about the activities of the US military, he prefers not to appear at press conferences. However, the devout Alabama-born Catholic is an iconic figure in the American army. The humble African American has broken the prejudices, barriers, and stereotypes that have existed in the US military for decades.
Austin has had major career successes, given that senior commanding officers remain a stronghold of white Americans. In 41 years of military service, he became the sixth African American in US history to rise to the rank of four-star general. Austin became the first black general to serve as Deputy General Staff of the US Army (a separate branch of the military) and as head of the US Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East.
While Austin may not be as well-known as WWII hero General George Marshall or former Central Command Chief James "Mad Dog" Mattis, who also served as Secretary of Defense, this does not detract from his versatile experience. The general has three higher educations: he graduated from the West Point Military Academy, received his master's degrees from Auburn University with a degree in education, from Webster University with a degree in business management. General Austin learned all facets of military affairs, from serving in leadership positions at an American military base in Germany, in military units in the states of North Carolina, Kansas, and New York, to participating in hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Biden met the general when he took over as commander of the U.S. military in Iraq from General Raymond Odierno in August 2010. The Vice President was impressed by Austin's organizational skills and the ability to remain calm in difficult situations. The general oversaw the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, which was a major logistics operation. Austin was realistic about the level of the terrorist threat and opposed the complete withdrawal of the American military. In 2014, large areas of Syria and Iraq came under the control of the terrorist organization ISIS, the backbone of which were Sunni Muslims from among the former supporters of ousted President Saddam Hussein.
Austin made a significant contribution to the defeat of ISIS. As head of Central Command, he also led Operation Unwavering Determination in Syria and Iraq and took part in the formation of an anti-terrorist coalition from 70 countries. During the military operation, the air forces of the countries participating in the coalition inflicted 15,000 airstrikes on terrorist positions, destroying 80% of the oil wells that were under their control and bringing in an income of $ 25 million a month. 146,000 tons of military cargo and materials were delivered. Austin advised President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. During the election campaign, Biden consulted with the general on security issues.
It is believed that Biden's choice was influenced by future vice-president Kamala Harris, African American congressmen, public organizations in the wake of the popularity of the human rights movement Black lives matters. Democratic supporters want as many black and colored Americans as possible in high-ranking positions. Over 60% of the US military is white. Austin's appointment should compensate for this racial imbalance.
Object of criticism
Austin has been criticized for not paying enough attention to training Iraqi and Syrian militias for ground operations against ISIS. During a Senate hearing in September 2015, the now-deceased head of the Armed Forces Committee, Senator John McCain, criticized Austin for stating that it took not a year, but 4-5 years to train 5,000 Syrian fighters, and stressed that his statements do not coincide with the estimates of third-party experts. McCain himself served 21 years as a military pilot and rose to the rank of captain, fought in Vietnam, survived captivity.
According to American law, the military can hold the post of Secretary of Defense no earlier than 7 years after resignation. 4 years have passed since Austin's resignation. The post of Secretary of Defense was established in the United States in 1947 in order to separate civil and military issues in the defense sphere. The exception was James Mattis, appointed to this office four years after his resignation by special permission of the Senate. Whether they will make an exception for Austin is an ambiguous question. Commenting on Biden's choice, Democratic Senator Tim Caine said that the feasibility of bypassing legislative restrictions twice in the past four years must be weighed well.
Biden considers the general's merit to be able not only to interact with the military but also to establish ties with civilians, which is important for the head of the Pentagon. After demobilization, Austin joined the Board of Directors of Raytheon Technologies, a metallurgical company Nucor, and is in charge of defense contracts, relations with government agencies, and international relations. He is an independent director at Tenet Healthcare. Evil tongues say that as Minister of Defense, he will lobby for their interests. During his service, the general paid attention not only to military issues but also advocated the popularization of medical rehabilitation of the American military, including those with the post-traumatic syndrome, which is in the interests of clinics and drug manufacturers.
Foreign policy context
Nevertheless, Biden chose Austin not only because of his skin color but also because he needs a person in the chair of the secretary of defense who thoroughly understands military issues and Middle Eastern affairs. The Middle East is not in the last place among its foreign policy priorities.
Biden's job is to convince Iran to agree to abandon its nuclear program, but the atmosphere is not right for that now. The Ayatollah regime promised to avenge the murder of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fahrizadeh. The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 triggered the shelling of US military installations in Syria and Iraq. While Baghdad is not calm, Biden cannot do without the advice of a qualified military man. If negotiations with Iran end in failure, then the question will arise of continuing the policy of maximum pressure on the Islamic republic. The question of increasing the defense capability of the Persian Gulf countries will arise, and in this matter, the connections of the general, whom the local security officials know, will not interfere.
The newly elected US president is set to reconsider relations with Saudi Arabia over disagreements with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the advisability of a bloody military operation in Yemen, the international isolation of Qatar and human rights violations, including the assassination of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The question of canceling defense contracts may arise. In this case, General Austin will perform the function of a lightning rod in Riyadh's relations with Washington, try to persuade the Saudi prince to be more accommodating to the new US president. Austin has once already saved the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries from the threat of becoming the next target of ISIS expansion after Syria and Iraq.
Biden will have to complete Trump's withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, and Austin's experience in Iraq will be useful in this regard. In addition, the general knows about the tense situation in this country firsthand. Contrary to the peace treaty between the United States and the Taliban, Biden will not rush to complete the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and is likely to retain a small contingent to continue training the local military. There is a threat that after the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban will try to seize power in the country again.
Biden's decision to nominate Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense to replace former Pentagon deputy chief Michele Flournoy, who worked on Ukraine and Russia strategy, suggests that the Ukrainian issue will not dominate US foreign policy in the coming years. General Austin does not have a deep knowledge of adversaries such as Russia and China, as he was involved in purely military conflicts in the Middle East. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke directly about the Russian threat and supported the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine. There are enough open questions in the Middle East.