image A retired paratrooper who must hit the ground running. Austin with Biden.

Pentagon Pick, CENTCOM’s Centrality

Austin supported Iran deal, took note of “Arab-Israeli Divide”

By Amir Oren

In selecting retired 4-Star Lloyd Austin to serve as his Secretary of Defense, President-Elect Joe Biden made an interesting move in the realm of America’s Civil-Military relationship. It also happens to be very good news for Israel, as Austin is both knowledgeable and sympathetic – as long as moderate, security-minded Israel is concerned. The impressive-looking paratrooper was in 1997, as a Lt.-Col., former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot’s classmate at the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and while at CENTCOM met in Belgium for extensive presentations and discussions with Eisenkot and his predecessor Benny Gantz, who if all goes well will be his opposite number as Defense Minister.

Biden is aiming at reflecting America’s diversity, with Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women of all extractions along with the usual contingent of white Anglo-Saxon men. This is a hallmark of the Democratic Party. Colin Powell, the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then the first Black Secretary of State, was appointed to these positions by Republicans, the Bush duo, but he would not have been promoted above Colonel if it was not for the insistence of a Black Secretary of the Army undet Jimmy Carter, Clifford Alexander, that he will hold all promotions until Black officers are no longer discriminated against.

Regardless of the message to troops and voters alike, it took more than 65 years, since the unprecedented appointment of retired General George Marshall as President Truman’s Pentagon chief, for the second senior officer recently retired to win a special pass from Congress for the same job. American law, intended to make sure the officer corps is subordinate to civilian authority, forbids the installing of Generals and Admirals atop the country’s military machine while on active duty and for the next seven years (cut from the original ten).

Under the American system, the Commander-in-Chief, the civilian President, can be a retired General, from Washington to Eisenhower, but the Defense Secretary, a post-World War II addition serving at the pleasure of the President, cannot. Within the Pentagon, power is also carefully diffused. The highest ranking officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is co-equal in rank to some 40 of his brothers and sisters in arms and is merely an adviser outside the chain of command leading from the President and the Secretary – the “National Command Authorities” – to the branches (Army, Navy, Air Force) and the combatant commands, functional (Strategic, Cyber, Special Operations) and geographic.

When Marshall was persuaded to come back and serve his country one last time, there were special circumstances. The Korean War was at a stalemate. Truman’s civilian authority was challenged by the highly prestigious theater commander, General MacArthur. Towards the World War’s end, Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower and several other officers were promoted to 5-Star. Later, the first JCS chairman, Bradley, was also given this rank, but it was not enough to counter MacArthur’s public aura and political appeal. In order to discipline and eventually oust him, Truman needed a Marshall, already a most respected former Secretary of State famous for his program to help the recovery of Europe and contain Soviet expansionism.

This was hardly the case in late 2016, when President-Elect Donald Trump called James Mattis out of the blue and asked him to serve as his Defense Secretary. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps General, was highly respected, even venerated, among his peers, but hardly an obvious choice for the second waiver from the no-General law. Apparently, Trump liked the idea of elevating an officer eased out by Barack Obama, as was the case with retired 3-Star Michael Flynn, who fell out with Obama as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and came back with Trump, for a very short while, as National Security Advisor.

Trump, who started out as an admirer of Generals, was soon at loggerheads with them (but then again, he did not get along with many of his civilian Secretaries and staffers, either). What was remarkable about Mattis, however, especially in light of Austin’s eventual selection, is the prominence – one is tempted to say the centrality – of CENTCOM, the Middle East (and beyond, to Afghanistan) Command formerly headed by Mattis and later Austin.

Traditionally, the only two bodies of water important to the United States were the Atlantic and the Pacific. Mainland USA was isolated – or connected – by these oceans from or to Asia and Europe. The significant military commands were EUCOM, which was synonymous with the American forces in NATO, and PACOM. The Middle East was divided between them, with EUCOM looking as far east as Iran, considered a Soviet wartime target.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Khomeini revolution revealed to Washington the cost of neglect. The Persian Gulf was no longer overlooked as some backwater. It dawned on the Carter Administration that a change is vitally needed. Thus, the Rapid Deployment Force, a 3-star Corps headquarters, soon to be upgraded by the Reagan administration to a full Theater Command, CENTCOM.

The US Army Generals who led the two campaigns against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003, respectively, Norman Schwartzkopf and Tommy Franks, soon retired into obscurity, but others became prominent, among them David Petraeus. The General who took over from Franks, John Abizaid, is now the American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Being in charge of a coalition deployed to, fighting in or arrayed against Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, to mention just some of the countries in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, gives one a sharp sense of religions, regimes, rulers and resources in this mix of conflicts and cooperation.

Before Austin retired, in 2016, CENTCOM’s immediate problem was the Islamic State sweep of large areas in Syria and Iraq. That had been mostly taken care of, so one can go back to two persistent problems – Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, which impacts on CENTCOM though Israel falls under EUCOM. The capabilities of the IDF and Israeli intelligence are well known to Austin, as during his time collaboration between the IDF, JCS, SOCOM (Special Operations Command), EUCOM and CENTCOM grew stronger than ever.

In his testimony to Congress as CENTCOM chief, Austin supported Obama’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran as “a step in the right direction” with the potential to moderate malign machinations on its part via Quds Force, proxies and ballistic missiles. He was not naive about it (and neither were Obama and Biden). Iran, he said, was both a challenge and an opportunity in an area beset by friction between Suni and Shiaa, Arabs and Kurds, extremists and moderates, “and lastly, the Arab-Israeli divide”.

If confirmed by the Senate, and there does not seem a prospect of Republicans daring to block the nomination of this particular Biden’s selectee, Austin promises to be a loyal and experienced member of the national security team, low on politics and high on sound military advice along with his former Army colleague, JCS Chairman General Mark Milley, a Trump appointee who publicly broke with him over the President’s departure from the traditional civil-military relationship. Ironically, it will now fall to Austin, in another sort of departure from the conventional background of Defense Secretaries, to help fix it.