Now Biden’s Democratic allies on the Hill, many of whom rejected such a waiver in 2017 for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to serve, are in the uncomfortable position of eroding an institutional safeguard ensuring civilian control of the military on behalf of a figure few know and fewer saw coming. One staffer for a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who did not want to be named, called the announcement a “clusterfuck.” Another Democratic aide called the situation a “hot mess.” And it is jeopardizing what should be a historic moment: the nomination of the first Black secretary of defense.
A great deal of the confusion stemmed from a widespread expectation, shared by many on the Hill, that former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy was the likelier choice to run the Pentagon. In fact, Flournoy was still personally courting skeptical Democrats on the Hill just days before the Austin news broke, according to a Democratic aide. Not to mention, many of the Democratic Party’s bench of defense experts, from whom Austin is likely to staff his Pentagon should he get that far, are Flournoy’s proteges and loyalists.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Austin has taken criticism this week in national-security circles for his roles, as commanding general in Iraq and then U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), in both the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014 to ISIS. That likely foreshadows a confirmation hearing that portrays Austin, rather than the politicians who pushed a disastrous war, as the architect of failure in Iraq. That prospect is starting to prompt pushback from Austin’s former colleagues in uniform, who worry that Austin is being set up to take the fall for efforts that were doomed by factors larger than him.