Retired general Lloyd Austin speaks after being nominated by US President-elect Joe Biden to be US Defense Secretary, at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware on December 9, 2020. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Biden nominates Gen. Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense
01:51 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” He has provided input informally to the Biden campaign on issues of national security. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

When I saw the headlines last week that President-elect Joe Biden was considering a retired general to lead the Department of Defense, my first response was, “Haven’t we already had too many general officers serving in key government positions over the last few years?”

Mark Hertling

Surely, I thought, the incoming administration would nominate a qualified civilian candidate after President Donald Trump filled several key cabinet positions with former military officers he referred to as “my generals.” Trump often disregarded their advice on myriad issues and tainted the honored tenet of military officers being non-partisan. To add insult to injury, nearly all of these generals would eventually resign or be forced out after they were drawn into Trump’s chaotic leadership style, which only stoked distrust in the military as an institution.

But when Biden announced his plan to nominate retired General Lloyd Austin this week, my initial skepticism faded. I began to reassess my thinking and reflected on the experience Austin would bring to the role, especially after reading Biden’s comments in The Atlantic. “The fact is, 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. He is the person we need in this moment,” Biden wrote.

But a bevy of naysayers remain unconvinced. Some among those who study civil-military relations are opposed to the nomination, pointing to the importance of maintaining civilian control over the military. Some senators also voiced their concerns with confirming yet another general who will need a Congressional waiver, given the National Security Act of 1947 that requires a prospective secretary to wait 10 years after active duty as a commissioned officer (Congress later changed it to seven years; Austin has only been retired four years, as was Mattis when he was nominated). Given that there have only been two general officer defense secretaries who required such a waiver (George Marshall in 1950 and Mattis in 2016), some senators are loath to again make this exception the rule.

Other critics have expressed their belief that General Austin is too quiet, too reserved, and as a result, too hesitant to speak his mind on critical issues, fueling a misperception that because senior generals are trained to strictly follow orders, they aren’t as prepared to practice the necessary argumentative and political skills needed at the table of national security. Some pointed to Mattis as modeling this behavior, suggesting he was often too reticent to counter Trump’s disruptive orders on a variety of issues, from the border wall to the transgender military ban.

There are those who worry that Austin would be a Biden-era sycophant and that the nation would be plagued by another general paying fealty to his commander-in-chief while the President runs roughshod over the norms of what a secretary of defense is supposed to do.

Finally, there are some who believe that officers who rise to the higher ranks in the military are “narrow” in their conceptual approach to complex challenges, and even those generals who served in strategic positions don’t garner the right experiences commensurate with leading diverse and bureaucratic organizations. They believe military leaders see the solution to every issue being a hammer, even when there isn’t a nail.

It’s appropriate to address each of those concerns. But before I do, I must state this: Lloyd Austin and I were classmates at West Point. He is a person of character, a phenomenal leader, a terrific manager and a dedicated patriot who thrives on complexity and tackling the toughest assignments. My assessment is based not just on our time together at the military academy in the 1970s. That opinion was strengthened when I commanded the Army’s 1st Armored Division and Multinational Division-North in Tikrit during the Iraq surge of 2007-8, and Austin was our Multinational Corps Commander. During that time, I was a subordinate commander who daily witnessed his leadership in the crucible of combat as well as his diplomatic chops in dealing with the emerging Iraqi government. His character, presence and intellect are exemplary.

To provide additional answers to his critics, I’d offer more.

Yes, General Austin is quiet, thoughtful and reserved, but he is far from a shrinking violet. He doesn’t seek the limelight, and no one has attempted to give him a colorful combat nickname such as “Mad Dog” or even “Chaos.” But in talking to those who know him – like Biden and those who served beside Austin – you’ll likely hear about how Lloyd cares for people, no matter the size of the organization. You’ll also hear about his pragmatic and succinct approach to solving complex problems, which comes from reasoned and serious reflection. Those who know him understand he has the personal courage to speak truth to power and provide valuable insight to his President – and to our allies and partners – because we have seen him do just that in the toughest of situations.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling (left), along with General Ray Odierno (center) and then-Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin (right) at the Al-Faw palace in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2008.

For those who believe Austin will be the latest iteration of Mattis, I’d say that comparing the Trump-Mattis relationship with the one Biden will likely have with Austin is like comparing apples to tennis rackets. That’s due to the difference in leadership styles – not of the nominee, but of the President – and the way Trump and Biden value input and teamwork. Trump is an advocate of a transactional leadership approach; the President acted as directive leader while the secretary of defense assumed the role of the executor. Biden is known for using a transformational leadership style, wherein the leader builds a unique team and each member complements one another while providing mutual support in achieving the team’s goals.

When Trump entered office, the President knew Mattis only by reputation; he nominated him for the defense secretary position even though Mattis disagreed with many of Trump’s views. It quickly became apparent that the two never established a strong personal relationship, and this was to the detriment of national security.

Biden has already established a long-standing relationship with Austin, having watched the general perform increasingly difficult jobs during the Obama administration. From that experience – and from my knowledge of how high-performing teams are formed – it’s likely Biden knows Austin will not only bring important attributes to the role but also play a key role on the wider national security team.

Biden knows that he will face frayed alliances and significant national security threats that require a transformed military. He needs a defense secretary who he knows and trusts, who is already familiar with the ways of the Pentagon and the ways alliances are nurtured, and who acts under the aegis of what the military calls “commander’s intent,” or the ability to read into the implied and specified tasks surrounding a President’s desires.

Finally, for those critics who believe the experience garnered by a senior general during a career of ever-increasing responsibility and complexity is “narrow” compared to those who labor in the private sector or academia, I’d suggest any analysis shows something quite different, because what a senior general officer does may be surprising to critics who are not steeped in military organizations.

For example, I know from more than three decades in the military that Austin executed a mix of conventional and unconventional operations, supported a staggering supply chain of equipment, coordinated and developed a foreign nation’s police and security forces, and worked closely with the US ambassador and State Department in mentoring a prime minister, President, members of parliament during his time as a four star theater commander in Iraq.

In the Pentagon, Austin’s job was to both support the Chairman of the Joint Staff and the uniformed services, as well as the secretary of defense and the President of the United States. His role also entailed the execution of a budget of nearly $700 billion dollars, the oversight of contingency planning and operations, as well as the ongoing transformation of the military.

Finally, as the combatant commander of Central Command, he simultaneously executed the draw-down in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, missions in Syria, Egypt, Somalia and Yemen, and served as the uniformed representative – partnering with US ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps – to 20 countries in the Middle East.

As a senior flag officer, Lloyd Austin has been tested in combat and in the halls of the Pentagon. He’s negotiated with diplomats and foreign leaders in the Middle East and worked with the highest level of US elected leaders facing the toughest of challenges. While doing this, he has gained more diplomatic, intelligence, budgetary and multinational supply chain logistics leadership and management experience than meets the eye. All of this is far from the description of being “narrow” or “militaristic” in the approach to national security strategy and policy.

I really was initially distraught when I first heard that Biden was considering a retired general to lead the Department of Defense. Would this appointment further degrade the tenet of civilian control of the military, or reestablish the norms that are so important to a democratic society? Does this individual have the right skills to take on one of the nation’s largest bureaucracies, with almost 3 million “employees,” a $700 billion budget, worldwide responsibilities, acquisition and force transformation demands along with contingency operations? Is this the right person to establish a trusting and open relationship with a new President as that new executive addresses domestic and international issues? Will the nominee have to savvy to help rebuild alliances and partnerships, reenter treaties and shore up national security? Does this person have the right experiences that would allow him to care for one of the most important organizations in our government, while leading by example and reestablishing our values on the world stage?

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I’ve changed my mind, and I can’t think of a better selection than Lloyd Austin for this position of trust and responsibility. I hope he is confirmed as our next defense secretary.