Commentary December 9, 2020

The Real Reason Biden’s Pick for Pentagon Chief is the Wrong Choice

Does Joe Biden's choice of Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III for secretary of defense offer a "safe choice" at the expense of preparing a strong front in the great-power competition with China and advancing women in senior leadership roles at the Defense Department?
Joe Biden and Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III attend a ceremony welcoming troops home at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on April 8, 2009.
Joe Biden and Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III attend a ceremony welcoming troops home at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on April 8, 2009. Stan Gilliland/EPA-EFA/REX/Shutterstock

This op-ed by Oriana Skylar Mastro originally appeared in the Washington Post.


President-elect Joe Biden appears poised to nominate retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III as secretary of defense.

Austin was apparently “the safe choice.” But there is nothing safe about choosing a secretary of defense ill-equipped to deal with the United States’ most pressing security challenge: China.

[Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest from our scholars.]

On paper, both parties have long agreed that China presents the greatest threat to the United States and its allies. To protect the U.S.-led global order, President Barack Obama called for a rebalancing of resources to Asia. The Trump administration recalibrated U.S. national security strategy away from counterterrorism and toward managing great-power competition with revisionist powers such as China. Many hoped Biden would build on these policies.

But Biden’s pick for secretary of defense suggests he does not take the challenge of a rising China seriously.

On the surface, Austin seems like a good choice. He has had an illustrious military career, which included commanding an Army division in combat and overseeing U.S. Central Command. These experiences have likely prepared him to lead a massive organization such as the Defense Department.

But this isn’t enough. 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. His experience in fighting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan is largely irrelevant to deterring and, if necessary, defeating a near-peer competitor. He spent the vast majority of his time in the military dealing with the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia — not China or other countries in the Indo-Pacific theater. Moreover, he comes to the position from the Army, the least relevant service in countering Chinese aggression. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley argued recently, "The fundamental defense of the United States and the ability to project power forward will always be for America naval and air and space power.”

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
FSI Center Fellow

Austin’s nomination also raises concerns about civilian control over the military — an essential feature for effectively devising and executing any strategy. Because of this, military officers must be retired from active duty for a minimum of seven years before they may hold top Defense Department positions. Austin, who retired only four years ago, could potentially get a congressional waiver. But that does nothing to resolve the underlying problems in defense policy that drove the law in the first place.

For some, what this nomination represents may be more important than the future of U.S. strategy toward China. If confirmed, Austin will be the first African American secretary of defense. While monumental, he still has something in common with all those that came before him: He’s a man. In defense, gender has proved to be a greater barrier. West Point graduated its first African American man in 1877, almost a century before it even started admitting women. Executive Order 9981 officially ended segregation in the armed forces in 1948, but seven decades later, women are still fighting for the right to serve in all combat roles. In the Pentagon’s history, only 79 women have ever served as a political appointee there, even though they make up half the population (for context, there are currently about 60 top-level Pentagon positions).

Strong supporters of Biden may try to give Austin the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, they’ll say, there weren’t any candidates with deep China expertise and extensive Pentagon experience, and whose background also exemplified the administration’s progressive principles.

Except there was. Michèle Flournoy has almost three decades of Pentagon experience, most recently serving as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. Her professional expertise and experience have focused on the challenge of China, specifically how to restore conventional U.S. deterrence as the Chinese military continues to modernize and grow. She would have been a strong, effective civilian leader and the first woman to run the organization.

I’m aware there are plenty of reasons not to like Flournoy. Her association with strategic blunders in the Middle East, her “hawkish” views and her connections to defense contractors are some of the most commonly cited.

But if these kept Biden from nominating her, one has to wonder why the same issues didn’t block Austin. Surely, as the former commander of forces fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Austin would be as much to blame as Flournoy for the state of affairs in that region. If people find Flournoy too hawkish because she openly strategizes about winning wars, then shouldn’t they feel equally uncomfortable about a man who fought in them, even if it was his duty to do so? And isn’t Austin’s recent retirement, not to mention his membership on the Raytheon board, as politically problematic as Flournoy’s connections to private defense contractors?

For weeks, my conservative colleagues have been taking to the airwaves to argue Biden will be weak on China. As a strong supporter of Biden, I am reluctant to give them any fodder. But the nomination of Austin suggests that they may be right on this one.

Oriana Skylar Mastro

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, working with the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the Center for Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Oriana Skylar Mastro

read more

President-elect Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping
News

Biden Administration Will Rely On U.S. Allies for Support as Tensions with China Continue to Rise

On the World Class Podcast, international security expert Oriana Skylar Mastro says conflict between China and Taiwan is plausible within the next 15 years, and the U.S. will likely be involved.
An Asian woman waring a face mask standing among a crowd gesturing with her hands
Commentary

Biden Will Speak Softer but Act Stronger on Taiwan

U.S. support will be strengthened, but Trump’s provocations will disappear.