The US Senate has confirmed retired General Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense, the second cabinet nominee of new President Joe Biden to gain approval and the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
Austin sailed through with overwhelming support from both Biden’s Democrats and opposition Republicans, who voted 93-2 in his favour.
Biden had confirmed in early December that he wanted Austin in the Pentagon, writing in The Atlantic that “in his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency.”
“He is a true and tested soldier and leader,” Biden said, adding that “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.”
Austin, an Alabama native, graduated from West Point and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1975. Over his decades-long career in the military, Austin served with distinction, even earning a Silver Star for valiant actions in connection with operations against the enemy during the Battle for Baghdad in Iraq in 2003.
Austin led the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, then the 10th Mountain Division, and later the XVIII Airborne Corps, commanding troops in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He later became the first Black director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.
His relationship with Biden began during the Obama administration, when Austin served as the commanding general for US and coalition forces in Iraq and later as the first Black commander of US Central Command. He and Biden spent many hours in the Situation Room together, Biden said.
Biden picked Austin, and the Senate endorsed him, despite a law that says the US military must be led by a civilian or, if a former military official, someone who has been out of the service at least seven years.
The requirement is to ensure civilian control of the military.
That meant both houses of Congress had to grant a waiver for Austin, who retired in 2016.
Austin, known to be media-shy and not particularly politically savvy, tweeted a statement quickly after gaining Senate approval.