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President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate retired General Lloyd J. Austin III to be Secretary of Defence, according to reports from the US. Austin, 67, rose to become a four-star general in the Army and retired in 2016 as the chief of US Central Command, a role from which he oversaw US military operations across the Middle East for three years.

Three officials spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to disclose a decision that has not been made public. A spokesman for the transition declined to comment. Earlier Monday, as Biden left the Queen theater in Wilmington, where he had held meetings with transition advisers, he told reporters that he would unveil his pick for Secretary of Defence on Friday.

Lloyd Austin Waiver

Austin’s selection will prompt a congressional debate over whether enough lawmakers would support a waiver from a law that mandates any service member must be out of uniform for at least seven years before being eligible to serve as Secretary of Defence. The law is meant to ensure civilian control of the military. The Trump administration obtained a similar waiver for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, to head the Pentagon, but it came at a time when many Republicans had taken themselves out of the running for the job by openly criticising Donald Trump when he was a Presidential candidate.

Biden has had a personal relationship with Austin and even attended the General’s 2010 change-of-command ceremony when Austin took over in Iraq. Biden, whose portfolio as Vice President included Iraq, worked with him closely during the Obama administration.

Austin oversaw not only the operations against the Islamic State but also the withdrawal of US combat forces in Iraq — a massive logistical undertaking that could be significant as the United States endeavours to distribute a COVID 19 vaccine, according to the person who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Breaking Barriers

Biden also was impressed by Austin’s barrier-breaking career in the military, which spanned about four decades and included being the first Black officer to command a division in combat and the first Black officer to oversee a theatre of war.

On a more personal note, Austin also has had experience comforting Gold Star families and understands the human cost of war, which Biden feels is important, the person said. Biden offered the position to Austin on Sunday, and Austin accepted it that day. Although Austin has deep experience in the Middle East, and Iraq especially, he is less seasoned when it comes to China, which the Pentagon under the Trump administration named as its primary security concern.

As a general, he was seen as willing to work within parameters that the White House set for him, even when operations were not going well. He also was viewed as intensely private, rarely doing news interviews and struggling at times during congressional hearings.

For weeks, it appeared Michèle Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration, was the favourite to be named Biden’s Secretary of Defence. She would have made history in her own right as the first woman to lead the Pentagon.

But in recent days, Flournoy had come under criticism from antiwar groups for her support for a bigger defence budget, a hawkish posture toward China, and support for military intervention in Libya and Syria.

Jack Richardson