Five things about Gen. Lloyd Austin

Dec 08 2020

Joe Biden reportedly plans to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense. In the past we’ve issued “progressive realism report cards” to key members, or prospective members, of Biden’s national security team (such as Tony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, or Michèle Flournoy, long considered a favorite for the seat Austin will apparently fill). 

But military officers don’t generally leave extensive records of their foreign policy views (since it isn’t part of their job to have them). And Austin, sometimes referred to as the “invisible general” because of his tendency to avoid the spotlight, is a man with particularly elusive opinions. So rather than issue the fourth-ever progressive realism report card, we’re employing a simpler but more venerable format: the listicle. Here are five things we know about Austin.

1. He knows his military jargon. 

Here’s a quote from a 2013 interview of Austin: “We should extend and expand on our lessons learned, showing the benefits of long-term investments in theaterwide infrastructure and the capabilities of joint and combined pre-positioning of common enablers such as ballistic missile defense, cyber, C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, and ISR], and transregional strategic mobility assets.” 

2. He seems ill-inclined to shrink the global military footprint.

We emphasize the word “seems”—again, his paper trail is skimpy. However, one of the intelligible sentences in that 2013 interview reads as follows: “I believe we should be doing all we can to preserve our current forward presence to the greatest extent possible rather than cede ground and regional partnerships.”

Nonetheless, some progressives welcomed the prospect of Austin as Pentagon chief, if only because he seemed the least unappealing candidate on offer. Flournoy has a long history of supporting military interventions, and Jeh Johnson, another much-mentioned candidate, seems to have approved the drone killing of an American citizen while working as the Pentagon’s top lawyer. 

3. He led the early fight against ISIS - with mixed results

Austin was the head of American military operations in the Middle East from 2013 to 2016, during which he oversaw the fight against ISIS. He drew much criticism for a program that was supposed to arm Syrians to fight the Islamic State. Despite a congressional allocation of $500 million, the program assembled only 60 fighters, and that unit fell apart after seeing combat.

Austin’s plan for fighting ISIS also involved expanding the American air campaign to assist local fighters on the ground. This approach remained central to the US effort to beat back ISIS even after he retired in 2016.

4. He oversaw the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq

 While serving as the top military commander in Iraq, Austin opposed pulling American troops out of the country and recommended that President Obama maintain a force of over 20,000 soldiers there. After Obama opted for a bigger drawdown, Austin won praise for executing the massive logistical effort.

It was during this time that Austin developed a working relationship with Vice President Biden, who was working on Iraq policy for the administration. The trust built between the two apparently played a role in Biden’s decision to nominate Austin.

5. He has links to defense contractors

Austin joined defense contractor United Technologies Corp as a board member in 2016, shortly after his retirement. United Technologies later merged with Raytheon, a major arms maker, whose board he then joined. According to a military-industrial complex watchdog, Austin has received about $1.4 million for his work with the companies.

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