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

When The President Is No G.I. Joe

Circle of competent confidants cooperating in a common cause  – and a Combat Commander

By Amir Oren

Joe Biden was a student when American involvement in the Vietnam War was at its height. His age group was drafted or commissioned. But Biden received a series of deferments, first due to his college and law school studies and finally for a medical condition, childhood asthma. He was not a G.I. Joe.

This is strikingly similar to Donald Trump’s experience, though in Trump’s case the medical reason given for his exemption was less convincing. Starting with Bill Clinton, there have been four Presidents born in the 1940’s, none of whom saw combat in Vietnam. Clinton, Trump and Biden avoided military service altogether. George W. Bush flew a fighter plane in the Texas Air National Guard, which powerfully protected the Lone Star State.

They all became politicians and eventually Commanders-in-Chief, charged with exercising civilian control over the U.S. military and making crucial decisions about war, peace and sending troops in harm’s way.

In manning – and womanning – his national security and foreign policy cabinet and White House staff positions, Biden acted prudently. At 78, after a lifetime in Washington as Senator, Vice President and Presidential candidate, he has learned from others’ experience and chose a conservative path. He seems to be acting with recognition of his own fragility and determination to set up an administration both able to hit the ground running and to keep its stride even if Biden himself is unable to function and Vice President Kamala Harris suddenly has to take over. Apparently, Biden is responsibly acting to insure continuity of government.

There are two or three models of appointing Secretaries of State and Defense. In one, former cabinet officers in other departments are given these positions. William Rogers, Attorney General under President Eisenhower, was given State by Nixon, Eisenhower’s VP. George Schultz, Nixon’s Labor Secretary, becoming Reagan’s Secretary of State. It worked better in the Schultz case than with Rogers, because of Nixon’s character and his reliance on his National Security Advisor, Kissinger, Rogers’ rival. Another success story was James Baker, Reagan’s Treasury Secretary given State by his friend George H.W. Bush.

A second model highlights Congressional credentials, because the Executive Branch must please the Legislative. Thus, Nixon brought Congressman Melvin Laird to the Pentagon, Bush the Elder nominated Senator John Tower as Defense Secretary and when Tower was forced to withdraw chose Congressman Dick Cheney, and Clinton appointed to the same position Congressman Les Aspin, who failed and was soon replaced. Clinton’s last Secretary of Defense was also a Legislator, Senator William Cohen, and Barack Obama had both a Senator (Hillary Clinton) and a Congressman (Leon Panetta) in State and Defense, respectively.

Yet a third model, which Biden seems to favor, is elevating former sub-caninet officials. Kennedy did it with Dean Rusk for State, Nixon with Kissinger for State and Schlesinger for Defense, Carter with Cyrus Vance and Harold Brown, Clinton with Albright and Perry, Bush the Younger with Robert Gates and Condoleeza Rice. Usually, the party out of power nurtures its second-tier experts, keeping them current in think tanks and foundations and when the fortunes of politics turn has an available talent pool to fill the top ranks of the incoming administration.

Biden has excelled at it. He did not look for impressive resumes and the egos that come with them. No household names the way Rumsfeld and Colin Powell (in addition to Cheney as VP) already were, or “a team of rivals”, emulating Lincoln, Obama built with Biden himself and Clinton. Biden promoted a circle of competent confidants he can count on for cooperation in a common cause. Blinken at State, Sullivan at the NSC, Burns at CIA, Haines as DNI are all trusted Biden lieutenants from his Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Obama Administration days, knowing each other personally and professionally, and while tensions rising out of turf or temper are eventually inevitable, they may not be as sharp as Biden sets sail, because of this particular President and pandemic and the pandemonium left by his predecessor.

Nevertheless, one member of this team stands out as having a totally different background, a combat commander among civilians, including his chief. Retired General Lloyd Austin, one of the first Afro-Americans to wear four stars on his military uniforms, now the first to be nominated Secretary of Defense and only the third officer of his rank to be up for a waiver in order to be eligible for this position.

While Austin grew relatively close to Biden on visits to Iraq and as the Commanding General at CENTCOM, he was never part of his intimate entourage of aides. The diplomatic mileage he accumulated in the Middle East notwithstanding, his perspective is more limited than his colleagues’, and his mandate at the Pentagon involves running the vast military bureacracy, its relations with the defense industry and signalling to minority servicemen that their aspirations for equal and dignified treatment are met. This heavy burden leaves less time for policy.

Indeed, during his nomination hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, earlier this week, Austin made a point of modestly claiming that the State Department would have a leading role, with Defense supporting it. He freely acknowledged that in this regard, as in several others, he would follow in the footsteps of James Mattis, President Trump first and most impressive Defense Secretary, who earlier preceded Austin at CENTCOM.

In his prepared response to advance policy questions Austin was partly in back to the future mode, focusing on the fight-Daesh mission he headed in Syria and Iraq up to 2016. While waiting for Biden’s  National Security Strategy, he said, he will follow the Mattis document, National Defense Strategy, with which he basically agrees. It calls for redeployment of forces from the Middle East, either back home or to areas reflecting American concern with China and Russia.

Regarding Iran, there was none of the Trump era of threats and temptation. The watchwords now are defense, deterrence, diplomacy, without giving up the goal of denying the Ayatollahs their Atomic arsenal, plus blocking their expansionism via proxies and their growing, and more accurate, conventional ballistic missiles. As for the Sinai-based Multi-national Force and Observers, a battalion-size U.S. contingent Pentagon planners love to chop, Austin sought to reassure Israel, Egypt and MFO allies that it is not in the cards.

In renewing and reforming the American military machine, Austin emphasized Airpower, Cyber and Naval stand-off systems. He did not disparage “boots on the ground”, but that was the subtext. Less platoons and pilots, more platforms and partners. The Senators, or perhaps their staffers, worried about the coincidence of both the Secretary and the senior uniformed officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, coming from the same service – the Army – rather than having a more willvaried background. While the fact that both Mattis and Milley’s predecessor, Joseph Dunford, came from the Marine Corps and were actually superior and subordinate in battle was of no concern four years ago, Austin promised that he will convey to Biden the views of the other Chiefs, if they diverge from Milley’s. This is something of a throwback to the early, 1950’s-70’s days of the JCS, when the Chairmen – because of pressure by the Navy and its supporters on Capitol Hill – were not as powerful as they have been from Powell’s time three decades ago.

Milley is 62 years old and his first two-year tour ends in August. An extension is the norm, but Biden may prefer a Chairman of his own. Austin’s endurance in office, too, will be dependent on the degree of warmth between himself, Biden and the President’s old – but younger – hands.

A seasoned Washington observer once noted that civilian policy makers want their military advisors to come up with “options” – against Iran, for instance – while the Generals reply that they would first like to know what the “objectives” are, because the military mission must be derived from the political guidance, not drive it. In this respect, the Biden Administration nay fare no better than its predecessors.

Events will also have their impact, of course. In Trump’s final days, there was fear of some last minute action against Iran. It eased when it turned out that he was more interested in pardons than in Persians. But Biden, Austin and Co. are not masters if the univerese. They will have to respond to crises as well as to launch initiatives. Their watch – and their watchers’ – begins.