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Biden asks Congress to waive ‘Cool Under Fire’ defense choice

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Wednesday congratulated Lloyd J. Austin III, his choice for the post of Secretary of Defense, as “a leader of courage, character, experience and extraordinary accomplishments, ”and called on Congress to grant exemption from the retired four-star military’s need for a law prohibiting recently active-duty officers from serving at the highest post in the Pentagon.

“He is loved by the men and women of the military, feared by our adversaries, known and respected by our allies,” Biden said at an event in Wilmington, Del. “And he shares my deep belief in the values ​​of The American Alliances.”

Mr Biden said placing the Pentagon under the direction of a general who oversees US military operations in Iraq and the wider Middle East would prevent the US from waging war, not make it more likely.

“We need his first-hand knowledge of the immeasurable cost of war and the burden it places on our servicemen and their families, to help end eternal wars and ensure that the use of force is the last tool in our toolkit, ”Mr. Biden said. “Not the first.”

Towering over his lectern, measuring 6 feet four inches tall, General Austin also stressed in his remarks that he would work closely with U.S. diplomats and allied nations. “America is strongest when it works with its allies,” he said.

He said he and Mr. Biden had “come to know each other in intense and high pressure situations” and pledged to give Mr. Biden “the same straightforward and unvarnished advice” that he had under l Obama administration, when he oversaw the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and then the military campaign against the Islamic State.

Mr Biden recalled a meeting at the residence of the US Ambassador to Iraq that General Austin attended when the building was rocket attacked by insurgents.

“Of course, General Austin, it was just another day at the office. He just sat there and kept walking, ”Mr. Biden said. “He’s cool under fire, inspiring the same in everyone around him.”

One of those people, Mr Biden said, was his son Beau Biden, who served as a military lawyer on General Austin’s staff in Iraq.

General Austin called young Mr. Biden, who died in 2015, “a very special person, and a true patriot, and a good friend to all who knew him,” adding that the two have kept in touch afterwards. Beau Biden’s return home.

If confirmed, General Austin would become the first Black Secretary of Defense, a historic breakthrough he acknowledged in remarks that reminded the Black Service members of the Buffalo Soldiers of the Civil War to the Tuskegee Airmen of the World War II to the Montford Point Marines, as the first Black men to serve in the Marines were known after the camp in North Carolina where they were trained. “There were many people who paved the way for me,” he said.

Mr Biden said General Austin was the right leader at a time when more than 40% of America’s active forces are people of color. “It is high time the ministry leadership reflected this diversity,” he said.

To be confirmed, however, General Austin will need to secure an exemption from Congress from a 1947 requiring military veterans to be removed from active service for at least seven years before heading the Department of Defense. General Austin retired from the military in April 2016.

Civilian control of the military has been a national priority since the founding of the country, and the selection of General Austin drew some immediate opposition on Capitol Hill for breaking with tradition.

But a vote from both houses of Congress may waive the requirement, as has happened twice before – most recently in early 2017, after President Trump appointed the recently retired Navy general. , Jim Mattis, as Secretary of Defense.

“There is a good reason for this law which I fully understand and respect. I wouldn’t ask for this exception if I didn’t believe this moment in our history didn’t demand it, ”Biden said. “Just like they did for Jim Mattis, I ask Congress to grant a waiver.”

Mr Biden’s team has already started making their case to lawmakers, where Democratic leaders have expressed strong support for the nomination and believe General Austin’s prospects are good.

“Lloyd Austin has served our nation for over four decades and his willingness to serve his country again is admirable,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and minority leader, on Wednesday. “He will make an excellent secretary of defense.”

President Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday also declared her support for General Austin in a statement that did not address his recent retirement.

Some lawmakers have recognized that it was difficult to justify opposing a waiver for Mr. Austin after Congress approved one for Mr. Mattis.

“I am primarily opposed to waivers,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California on the House Armed Services Committee. “But I don’t see how we can give it to Mattis and then turn around a few years later and deny it to one of the most skilled African American leaders to ever serve our nation.”

But many Democrats still have qualms.

“As Democrats, we’ve just spent four years watching these types of rules be broken,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, Democrat from New Jersey and former State Department official. “We really have the impression that an exemption would transform the exception into a rule. *

He added that he had not yet decided how he would vote when the question was asked in the House.

The Democratic Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, said in a statement Tuesday that he was confident Mr. Austin would make “an excellent defense secretary.” But he said he was “concerned” about his recent military service and that Mr. Austin was due to meet with members of Congress to demonstrate his commitment to civilian control of the Pentagon.

General Austin sought to allay those concerns on Wednesday. “I come to this new role as a civilian leader – with military experience, of course – but also with a deep appreciation and respect for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control over our military,” he said. declared.

General Austin’s planned appointment won overwhelming support on Wednesday from two national security figures who have served in the Republican and Democratic administrations.

In a statement, Robert M. Gates, former Secretary of Defense to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, called General Austin “a person of unwavering integrity, independent of thought and conscience and with a steady hand. “. And Colin L. Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first black secretary of state, said in a statement on his Facebook page that he had been General Austin’s mentor, and urged the Congress to approve a waiver allowing the general to serve.

Mr. Powell said General Austin “had demonstrated his fighting skills and his bureaucratic, diplomatic and political acumen”.

Luke broadwater, Emily cochrane and Nicolas fandos contribution to reports.