The vote took place just a day after the House and Senate approved a waiver to allow Austin to serve. Austin, who retired from the military in 2016, does not meet the legal requirement that military officers not wear uniform for seven years to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Austin, former commander of US forces in the Middle East, is the second four-star general to benefit from the waiver in four years. Congress also passed an exception for former President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief, retired Navy General Jim Mattis.
Despite the pioneering nature of Austin’s appointment and its long track record, lawmakers on both sides feared that the installation of another general at the top of the Pentagon could disrupt already disorderly civil-military relations. Even some supporters of Trump and Mattis, such as Republican Senator Tom Cotton or Arkansas, argued that supporting Mattis in 2017 was a mistake and that Congress should never again grant the waiver.
But Austin doubled civilian control of the army during a Senate Armed Forces confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Most senators were pleased with Austin’s pledges to strengthen civilian control of the military and empower senior Pentagon civilians rather than surrounding themselves with former high-ranking military personnel.
“Mr. Austin has a long career in the military, but those days are behind him,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said ahead of Friday’s vote.
“He must once again demonstrate to the world that the US military will always support its friends, deter our adversaries and, if necessary, defeat them,” said Schumer. “Lloyd Austin is the right fit for the job.”
Outgoing Republican Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe has argued that Austin was the right choice to lead the Pentagon as the military shifts its focus to the corresponding gains from China and Russia.
“We are in the most threatened period that we have known,” said Inhofe. “And I can’t think of a better person to take the helm than General Austin to provide that leadership.”
In his early days on the job, Austin will likely oversee the dismantling of Trump’s restrictive transgender troop policy. Biden has pledged to overturn Trump’s ban and return to the Obama-era policy of allowing transgender people to serve openly. Austin told senators he was in favor of overturning the ban.
He also pledged to quickly review the Pentagon’s efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that the department is doing all it can to help distribute vaccines and immunize troops.
He will also take control of a Pentagon that is grappling with issues of systemic racism and extremism in the ranks after months of racial unrest in the country and a deadly insurgency this month on the U.S. Capitol that has taken over. share of former soldiers.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to protect America from our enemies,” Austin said Tuesday. “But we can’t do that if some of these enemies are in our own ranks.”
It’s the historic nature of the choice that also underscores one of Austin’s major challenges: making the military more diverse, especially at the higher ranks.
“If African Americans are successful, we have to work harder, stay longer and get in earlier. It always has been,” said Representative Anthony Brown, a former army officer. “We have to clean this bar with a lot more room than the others. Austin clean this bar.”
“The moment he walks through the door will energize the department,” he added.
But making the military more representative won’t be so easy, warned retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief of naval operations.
“He must move this forward, keep the feet of the services on fire on this issue, because it is a priority for the country. And now is the time, ”he said in an interview.
Yet bringing more equality to the military goes far beyond promoting more black officers, he said.
“My biggest regret when I was NOC and President is that I couldn’t do much about the Latinxes,” said Mullen. “I was pushing women and minorities and the Latinx hunk, you know, there was no place to push. I didn’t have a pool and that has to be created.”
Austin is the first Pentagon candidate to be confirmed in this administration.
Biden has also named Kathleen Hicks as Austin’s deputy and Colin Kahl as Pentagon chief policy officer, but neither have yet received confirmation hearings.
Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.