Senate confirms retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as America's first Black defense secretary

  • The Senate has confirmed Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, as the first Black secretary of defense.
  • Austin served in the armed forces for more than four decades, retiring in 2016 after serving as the first Black leader of US Central Command.
  • During his career, he developed a relationship with President Joe Biden and his late son Beau, who served as an officer in the Delaware Army National Guard.
  • While he received significant support from members of Congress, Austin also faced bipartisan opposition to the granting of a waiver which would see another recently-retired general serve as secretary of defense.
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The Senate confirmed President Joe Biden's pick for Pentagon chief on Thursday, making retired Gen. Lloyd Austin the first Black secretary of defense.

Biden confirmed in early December reports that he wanted Austin in the Pentagon, writing in The Atlantic that "in his more than 40 years in the United States Army,  Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency."

"He is a true and tested soldier and leader," Biden said in defense of his pick. "Austin's many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face."

Austin, an Alabama native, graduated from West Point and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1975. Over the course of his decades-long career in the military, Austin has served with distinction, even earning a Silver Star for valiant actions in connection with operations against the enemy during the Battle for Baghdad, Iraq in 2003.

Austin led the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, then the 10th Mountain Division, and later the XVIII Airborne Corps, commanding troops in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He later became the first Black director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

His relationship with Biden began during the Obama administration, during which Austin served as the commanding general for US and coalition forces in Iraq and later as the first Black commander of US Central Command. He and Biden spent many hours in the Situation Room together during that time.

The two also shared another connection — Beau Biden. Biden's son served on Austin's staff in Iraq during his time with the National Guard, and the two regularly attended Sunday Mass together. Austin has described Beau, who died in 2015, as a "very special person," a "true patriot," and a "good friend."

He retired from the armed forces in 2016 as a four-star general. In a statement issued at the time of his retirement, then-President Barack Obama praised Austin for his "wise judgement and steadfast leadership," adding that he was certain "that General Austin will find other ways to serve his country in retirement."

Because Austin has not been separated from the military for more than seven years, he needs the same waiver that retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis needed to serve as defense secretary.

His relatively recent departure from the military has been a sticking point for some lawmakers who argue that installing recently-separated generals at the head of the Department of Defense threatens civilian control over the military. Congressional opposition to a waiver has been bipartisan.

Austin sought to alleviate the concerns of lawmakers troubled by this issue during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

He told congressional leaders that "the safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil."

"I know that being a member of the president's Cabinet — a political appointee — requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform," he added.

"If confirmed, I will carry out the mission of the Department of Defense, always with the goal to deter war and ensure our nation's security, and I will uphold the principle of civilian control of the military, as intended," Austin said.

During the confirmation hearing, Austin also assured lawmakers that his defense industry ties, specifically his Raytheon connections, would not influence his decisions as defense secretary.

Additionally, Austin voiced support for eliminating extremism in the ranks, combating sexual assault, and making coronavirus relief a priority. He also acknowledged the challenges posed by great power rivals China and Russia and the need to end the decades-long conflicts in the Middle East.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the waiver required for Austin to serve as the secretary of defense on Thursday. The Senate then confirmed his nomination Friday morning, voting in favor 93-2.

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