In a column published this month in Atlantic, Biden called General Austin’s handling of the withdrawal from Iraq “the largest logistics operation undertaken by the military in 60 years” and the parallel with the effort it will take to distribute the vaccine against the coronavirus across the United States – a mandate that will fall to the next Secretary of Defense. “I know this man well,” said the president-elect during the official presentation of his candidate for the post in question.
When he was appointed by Barack Obama to head the United States’ Central Command – the country’s first military command and the one responsible for operations in the Middle East – General Austin found himself in the highest post ever in the United States. army by a black man, with the sole exception of Colin L. Powell, who served as Chief of the Defense Staff. If he becomes Secretary of Defense, he will have moved up one step further.
Admiral Mullen’s position as director of the JCS prepared him for everything that followed. “I was dealing with complex issues, interacting regularly with the Secretary of Defense,” says Austin. “People who didn’t necessarily know Lloyd Austin got to know him.”
Even if confirmed by the Senate at the head of the Pentagon, General Austin could face familiar hurdles in promoting people of color. One of his black contemporaries at JCS, General Spencer, recounted in an interview what happened to him when he tried to fill an executive assistant position – a promising job, likely to lead higher.
“They kept sending me lists of white candidates,” he recalls. When he called for a more varied selection, “the officer said to me, ‘Well, general, it would look bad if you pick a black executive assistant, because you are black.’
It remains to be seen whether Austin will have his hands tied by these kinds of views once he is Secretary of Defense. In an interview given before Mr. Biden offered him the Pentagon, the Iraq veteran insisted that it is up to the top leadership to move forward to diversify the higher ranks.
“People tend to surround themselves with people they feel comfortable with. If leadership doesn’t value diversity, that won’t happen, ”he warns. “He makes you believe it’s good to have goals and objectives, but having requirements might be better.”