As the country’s largest progressive Veteran-led grassroots organizing group, Common Defense commends President-elect Joe Biden on deciding to nominate the first Black Secretary of Defense, a historic step which is incredibly meaningful to us, and to millions of other Americans. More than 72 years after the military was desegregated, the legacy of racial injustice in the military persists, and we hope to work in partnership with the next Secretary of Defense to achieve positive change.
Yet while the barrier-breaking nature of the first Black nominee is worth celebrating, by picking General Lloyd Austin for the role, we believe that President-elect Biden has made a grave, democracy-threatening mistake.
In a democracy, civilian control of the military must be ironclad, or else we will descend further down the authoritarian path paved by Donald Trump. If generals are appointed to political roles, too many actively-serving generals will see themselves as politicians-in-waiting, rather than professionals with a duty to provide their best advice to the Commander-in-Chief elected by the people. During both the Obama and the Trump presidencies, we saw a growing willingness by the Pentagon to subtly defy the spirit of the orders of the duly-elected president, and conceal from the public and our representatives in Congress the true state of the Forever Wars in which our troops are fighting and dying.
The National Security Act of 1947 requires that the Secretary of Defense be a civilian, not a retired officer who served in the military less than seven years prior to their nomination. In 73 years only two exceptions have been made – for General George Marshall in 1950 under President Truman (and only after serving as Secretary of State), and for General James Mattis in 2017 under President Trump (an existential crisis where there were no good options). Both exceptions were serious mistakes, which the presidents who selected them came to regret.
Since General Lloyd Austin’s nomination would also violate this law, President-elect Biden would need to seek a congressional waiver for Austin to be exempt—something 17 Senate Democrats are on the record as having opposed in the case of James Mattis just three years ago. If President-elect Biden proceeds with General Austin’s nomination, Common Defense Veterans will lobby these senators to remain consistent in their positions on not granting exceptions to the law, regardless of the individual merits or historic nature of the candidate.
The selection of General Austin directly violates Joe Biden’s campaign promises, the 2020 Democratic Party platform, as well as the one explicit request our organization made with regards to the Secretary of Defense choice. We were informed that our red-line of “no retired generals in the Cabinet” was communicated to the top leadership in the transition team and the president-elect, and the concerns of our 180,000 members were apparently disregarded.
Beyond this primary objection, there are many ways that the search for a Secretary of Defense has been deeply disappointing.
It can’t be ignored how the lack of diversity in senior national security roles has resulted in many women and Black Americans who are hungry for representation being pit against each other in support of different individual candidates due to a very narrowly-constrained traditional view of the necessary qualifications.
Additionally, it has been discouraging that the candidates being considered have all had deep ties to massive defense corporations whose malign influence over our political system is a major reason why the Pentagon’s budget has continued to skyrocket by tens of billions of dollars every year, against the will of voters, while American communities’ need for jobs, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and climate resiliency have gone unaddressed. While it certainly isn’t bad for a Secretary of Defense to have a deep understanding of the powerful industries with which they must contend, we view the proper relationship of the Secretary of Defense to the defense industry as the same as that of a Secretary of Energy focused on climate action towards the fossil fuel industry—they must recognize the negative impact of these corporations on society and use their knowledge to actively work to reduce their overwhelming power. We reject the idea that the only qualified options to serve as Secretary of Defense are individuals who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, or Raytheon (as General Austin does).
As the Biden administration prepares to take office on January 20, our country must have a Secretary of Defense who will take bold action in its first 100 days. The United States needs a Secretary of Defense committed to ending the Forever War and halting arms sales to authoritarian governments. We need a Secretary who puts the American people ahead of stockholders or the profits of huge defense corporations. We need a Secretary who will rise to the occasion and fight to fix our broken Defense system, take transformative action to end sexual assault in the military, root out white nationalism in the ranks, curb corruption and revolving doors, and build a Department of Defense that is truly responsive to the American people.
Most importantly, we need a Secretary who is ready to uphold Biden’s promise to the American people: to end the Forever War.
As Veterans who worked incredibly hard to elect Joe Biden, we are deeply disappointed by his choice of General Austin to serve as Secretary of Defense. But we believe he is capable of fixing this error and choosing someone who will take these critical steps for the sake of our country and our Veterans, and we hope to work in partnership with the future Secretary to make them happen.
Team Common Defense