US: 10 things to know about Lloyd Austin, leader of the world’s most powerful army

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 17 May 2022 10:59, updated on Friday, 20 May 2022 12:30

House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee holds hearing on the Defense Department budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives at a House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on the Defense Department budget request, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson

The 28th US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is the first Black man to lead the world’s most powerful armed forces. A skeptic of US military interventionism, he has nevertheless identified the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to ensure that a “weakened” Russia no longer has the power to invade its neighbours.

1. Historic nominee

A native of Mobile, Alabama, in the American Deep South, Austin serves in the most racially diverse administration in US history as the first African-American to ever lead the military.

He was born in 1953, just five years after the US armed forces were desegregated, and has pledged to create opportunities for minorities in the military so they can rise to the top and help ensure that he is “not the last African American secretary of defence”.

2. Military leader

Austin is only the third person to earn a waiver from Congress allowing recent military leaders to assume leadership of the Pentagon. His nomination was widely seen as clashing with President Joe Biden’s promise to restore the democratic norm of civilian control over the military.

3. Army man

Austin spent his entire career in the US Army, serving for more than four decades after being commissioned as a second lieutenant following his graduation from the US military academy at West Point in 1975. He reached the position of vice chief of staff, the second-highest ranking officer on active duty in the army under President Barack Obama. He retired in March 2016 as a four-star general.

4. Middle East cauldron

From March 2013 to March 2016, Austin was the head of US Central Command, which has responsibility over the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of South Asia as well as Egypt. As such, he oversaw the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He had previous experience in Iraq after helping lead the 3rd Infantry Division’s assault on Baghdad in April 2003 and later commanding US and coalition forces in the country from September 2010 to December 2011.

5. Catholic upbringing

Raised by a devout mother, Austin strongly considered attending the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the nation’s leading Catholic research university, before settling on West Point. He is known as an “intensely private” person and got to know Biden’s late son Beau Biden when both men regularly attended church service when they were deployed to Iraq a decade ago.

6. The Biden connection

In addition to his relationship with Beau, Austin also had the support from key Biden allies in the military during the Obama administration. One of them is retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former head of the secretive Joint Special Forces Command who endorsed Biden for president despite overtures from Donald Trump.

Austin is known to share much of Biden’s worldview, including scepticism of US interventions in the Middle East, trust in the power of diplomacy, and a desire to rebuild alliances that took a beating under Trump.

7. Bipartisan appeal

In a time of bitter partisanship in Washington, the man known as the “silent general” – for his quiet competence – retains broad appeal across the political spectrum. His nomination was approved in the Senate by a near-unanimous vote of 93 to 2 – the most support for any of Biden’s Cabinet nominees – with only conservative Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Lee of Utah voting against him.

The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country have however somewhat diminished his standing, with a handful of current and former officials calling for his resignation.

8. Military-industrial complex

Right after leaving the military, Austin went through the controversial revolving door between the US military and defence industry and joined the board of Raytheon Technologies. There he earned millions of dollars in compensation and stock options at one of America’s largest military contractors. He was also appointed to the board of directors of Nucor, America’s largest steel producer, and served as a partner at the private equity firm Pine Island Capital alongside Antony Blinken before the latter became secretary of State.

9. Defending Egypt

As CENTCOM commander, Austin championed the US relationship with Egypt amid bipartisan calls to pare down the $1.3bn in annual US security assistance over human rights abuses under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In his testimony before the US Congress, Austin termed Egypt a key strategic partner and the military-to-military partnership with the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) the “cornerstone” of America’s relationship with Cairo.

10. Sahel support

Austin has delved more deeply into African issues since becoming Biden’s secretary of Defence.

Last fall, he informed his French counterpart Florence Parly that Washington would continue to provide US drone and satellite technology for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to French troops in the Sahel despite US misgivings about the overly military aspect of a mission that has failed to prevent a collapse in governance across the region.

 

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