Nowhere has that dynamic been extra obvious than in Biden’s determination this month to finish the U.S. army presence in Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Privately, Austin argued towards an unconditional withdrawal on that timeline. However finally, Biden went towards Austin’s recommendation, in addition to the suggestions of the highest army brass. And ultimately, Austin mentioned publicly that he totally supported the president’s determination to withdraw.
Some critics claimed on the time that the Pentagon was sidelined within the Afghanistan discussions. However Austin’s defenders chafed on the notion that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and nationwide safety adviser Jake Sullivan are actually operating the present.
Folks aware of the discussions say Biden listened to Austin’s issues and thought of them, however merely selected to go in one other route. Sullivan despatched a press release to POLITICO for this story saying Austin constantly gives “sage, stress-tested recommendation based mostly within the realities on the bottom, not anybody’s wishful considering.”
“Once we go across the desk within the Scenario Room and get to Secretary Austin, everybody leans ahead to hearken to what he has to say — me most of all,” Sullivan mentioned.
Within the first 100 days of the brand new administration, Austin has confronted challenges on a number of fronts, from deploying active-duty troops to help the Covid-19 vaccination effort, to addressing extremism within the ranks. On the similar time, he has needed to develop a plan to counter China’s rise whereas overseeing the top of America’s involvement in its longest conflict.
In lots of instances, Biden did take Austin’s suggestions. After Iran-backed militias attacked American and allied personnel in Iraq in February, Austin urged Biden to strike again in a surgical, constrained method. Biden took his recommendation, ordering a measured airstrike in japanese Syria that destroyed buildings belonging to the group and killed a number of militants.
“Any president deserves a protection secretary who’s going to execute his choices,” mentioned Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat, who spoke with Austin straight in regards to the discussions main as much as the Afghanistan announcement. “I used to be glad that Secretary Austin was on the desk … and that his view is being listened to. On the finish of the day, it’s President Biden’s determination.”
Whereas Austin takes pains to keep away from the highlight, the very nature of his appointment units him aside. His historic ascension to be the primary Black man and individual of coloration to guide the Pentagon comes because the nation continues to confront its deep issues with racism.
Austin’s affirmation despatched an “terribly essential” sign to individuals of coloration, contained in the army and within the broader American group, mentioned retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Workers, who labored to interrupt racial obstacles on the Pentagon and employed Austin to be his director of the Joint Workers, the primary Black man to carry that job.
“For the primary time, younger individuals — younger Black individuals — can lookup and see any individual who’s on this terribly essential place who seems to be like them,” Mullen mentioned.
This story relies on conversations with 10 present and former nationwide safety officers who know Austin properly, a few of whom spoke on situation of anonymity to debate delicate matters. All of them described an introverted household man who earned respect for his calm demeanor, regular management in tough conditions, and private braveness. Whereas the president doesn’t all the time take Austin’s recommendation, he considers and values it, they mentioned.
And true to type, he declined to be interviewed for this text.
The shock choose
Biden stunned many within the nationwide safety group — together with Austin himself — in choosing the previous four-star common as his protection secretary over different high candidates comparable to Michele Flournoy, former President Barack Obama’s Pentagon coverage chief.
In reality, when Austin bought the preliminary name from the transition asking him whether or not he can be fascinated by a Cupboard-level place, he agreed to be vetted with out realizing for which company.
For the reason that announcement, adopted by public appearances and a affirmation listening to, Austin has not turn out to be any extra snug with the limelight. He has averted the cameras besides when completely essential, and has addressed the Pentagon press corps from the briefing room solely as soon as. He has additionally restricted media engagements on abroad journeys, which earlier protection secretaries have historically used to develop a rapport with reporters masking the constructing.
Austin’s avoidance of the press has drawn some criticism, even from his allies.
“I do assume it’s a duty for a secretary of protection to appropriately have interaction the media in order that we all know what the positions are of the administration,” mentioned Brown, who initially supported Flournoy to be Pentagon chief however instantly endorsed Austin after the ultimate choose was introduced.
Brown mentioned he has seen that John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, normally speaks on behalf of the secretary, and is “in quest of extra direct quotes” from Austin himself.
“I might encourage Secretary Austin to spend time with the press and be sure that he’s articulating the views, the positions of the administration,” Brown mentioned.
Austin was not initially snug in his new position on social media, both. Nationwide Safety Council spokesperson Emily Horne mentioned she needed to speak him into making a Twitter profile. The Pentagon chief took to the medium rapidly and now makes use of it as a “device of diplomacy,” she mentioned.
Kirby mentioned Austin “understands properly the should be clear and to speak with the American individuals, and he has set that tone all through the division.”
“That mentioned, he’s pushed way more by outcomes than he’s by headlines … notably headlines about him,” Kirby mentioned. “His focus stays on defending the nation and offering his finest counsel to the Commander-in-Chief to that finish. ”
Behind the scenes, officers say Austin presents himself in a lot the identical method. He’s usually the voice of motive in tough discussions, and has a defusing impact on his colleagues. This trait has proved helpful throughout conferences on scorching matters, such because the Afghanistan withdrawal, the place the tone with different advisers usually turned heated.
“You’re by no means going to see Lloyd get flustered,” mentioned retired Gen. Larry Spencer, the previous vice chief of employees of the Air Power who met Austin when the 2 served on the Joint Workers within the Obama administration. “No one would ever mistake Lloyd for any individual they’ll stroll over. However he’s a really calming affect … he’s unflappable. He simply doesn’t panic.”
The good soldier
Austin broke obstacles for individuals of coloration within the army over his 40-year profession, turning into the primary Black common to command an Military division in fight and the primary to supervise a whole theater of operations. Amongst his Military friends, Austin is an “iconic” chief, mentioned retired Gen. Joseph Votel, the previous commander of particular operations command who took over from Austin as Central Command chief in 2016.
Votel praised Austin’s work in rooting out the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria towards the top of his tenure, noting that his workforce carried out Austin’s marketing campaign plan to defeat the group — which included focusing on the militants’ income streams and supporting native companion forces — to the letter.
Nevertheless, lawmakers criticized Austin for his position in operating the U.S. army’s coaching program for forces in Syria in 2015, which spent some $500 million however produced solely a handful of fighters.
Votel bought to know Austin when the protection secretary was the corps commander in Iraq. Later, when Austin was commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq and Votel was the commander of Joint Particular Operations Command, the 2 spent lengthy hours collectively because the administration thought-about its possibility for withdrawing forces from the nation, Votel mentioned.
Votel shared Austin’s issues a couple of full withdrawal from Iraq and agreed along with his suggestion that the Pentagon ought to go away a smaller drive on the bottom to maintain strain on the al Qaeda community there and preserve the connection with Baghdad, he mentioned.
However in that case, like at this time with the Afghanistan drawdown, as soon as the president made a last determination, Austin bought on board.
“He executed that with a stage of army professionalism that we’ve hopefully come to anticipate from our army leaders in executing the choices of our civilian management, whether or not they’re common or unpopular choices,” Votel mentioned.
Republican hawks had been fast to slam the choice, venting that they weren’t given extra info on the decision-making course of.
Shortly after the Afghanistan determination was introduced, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) slammed Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Workers, for refusing to reply lawmakers’ questions on what choices they supplied the president throughout the debate, and criticized the Biden administration for not taking the recommendation of the brass.
“You may’t have the president of the US saying ‘I stood as much as the generals,’” Graham mentioned. “You may’t dwell in a rustic the place the President brags about saying ‘no’ to the army and the army will not inform the Congress, ‘Nicely, what choices did he have?’”
Austin’s expertise in Iraq 10 years in the past didn’t forestall him from talking his thoughts throughout the Afghanistan debate this 12 months. Throughout inner conferences forward of the choice, Austin made the case for preserving a small drive on the bottom to permit time for diplomacy to work, in accordance with U.S. officers aware of the discussions. He shared the generals’ unease with an unconditional withdrawal with a exact finish date, and expressed concern in regards to the nation’s long-term stability.
Now that the choice is made, finishing up the withdrawal falls to Austin. In what officers say is an indication of the belief he locations in his protection secretary, Biden will not be micromanaging the drawdown: He has requested Austin to provide you with a plan and execute it unilaterally.
Though Biden doesn’t all the time take Austin’s recommendation, the Pentagon chief is likely one of the president’s most trusted advisers, officers say. As soon as every week Austin travels throughout the river to attend the president’s each day briefing on the White Home, and afterward has a non-public viewers with the commander in chief. Typically, however not all the time, Milley additionally attends.
Austin has additionally developed an in depth working relationship with Blinken and Sullivan. As soon as every week the three have a “sync,” which is normally digital.
Whereas Austin will not be as near Biden as Blinken or Sullivan, who’ve served as private advisers for many years, the protection secretary does have private ties to the president. The two males are each Catholics and labored intently collectively throughout the Iraq drawdown. Austin additionally developed a relationship with Biden’s late son, Beau, throughout their time in Iraq, and the 2 stored in contact after Beau returned house.
“It is the healthiest POTUS-SECDEF relationship I’ve ever seen. No surprises. Transparency. Debate. Honesty. And mutual respect,” mentioned Kelly Magsamen, Austin’s chief of employees. “That final half is the particular sauce between Biden and Austin.”
Rooting out extremism
Contained in the Pentagon, Austin is tackling a number of the army’s hardest issues. As the primary Black protection secretary, Austin has made rooting out racism and extremism one in every of his high priorities, directing a number of fast actions together with a uncommon department-wide one-day “stand down” to debate the difficulty.
The drawback is of explicit significance to Austin after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists, together with a number of veterans and folks with army ties. The army eliminated not less than a dozen Nationwide Guard members from the mission supporting inauguration after background checks revealed extremism hyperlinks. A number of different federal businesses, together with the Division of Homeland Safety, are present process inner critiques to deal with white supremacy and extremism.
However the Pentagon stand down was not directed by the White Home. Even earlier than Jan. 6, Austin knew he needed to take motion to handle extremism within the ranks. When he took workplace in January, his employees introduced varied choices, however he finally determined the stand down — the army time period for a piece day dedicated to discussing the issue in a bunch setting — was the easiest way to ship a message to commanders throughout the army and to listen to from the rank-and-file.
After listening to partial outcomes from the stand down, which occurred over a 60-day interval beginning in February, Austin stood up a countering extremism working group led by Bishop Garrison, who he appointed the senior adviser on human capital and variety, fairness and inclusion, to look at tips on how to higher vet recruits and educate service members.
“There may be by no means a fallacious time to do the precise factor,” Votel mentioned, praising Austin’s efforts as far as “well-considered.” “To not take note of this within the atmosphere that our nation is true now I feel can be ignorant and I feel can be irresponsible.”
In the meantime, Austin additionally appointed members to a congressionally-mandated fee on renaming army bases and different DoD amenities that commemorate the Confederacy, and established an impartial panel to supply suggestions on coping with sexual assault and harassment within the army.
Austin has deep expertise coping with extremism. Throughout his time on the 82nd Airborne, members of a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads shot and murdered two Black individuals in close by Fayetteville, N.C., plunging the unit into disaster.
“We awakened at some point and found that we had extremist components in our ranks, and so they did unhealthy issues that we definitely held them accountable for,” Austin mentioned in regards to the incident throughout his affirmation listening to. “However we found that the indicators for that exercise had been there all alongside. We simply didn’t know what to search for or what to concentrate to — however we realized from that.”
In media interviews this 12 months, Austin recounted his personal expertise with discrimination, each in his civilian life and through his army profession. Austin recalled seeing segregated loos at a bus station whereas rising up within the Deep South, and feeling a “acutely aware bias” throughout his army assignments.
Because the 82nd Airborne’s first Black operations officer in 1995, then-Lt. Col. Austin had a white officer give his briefings as a result of he felt the opposite white officers “had been extra more likely to pay attention,” he told CBS News ‘60 Minutes’ in March.
The discrimination didn’t finish when he rose to the army’s highest rank of four-star common.
“I might go someplace with my employees, and we had been sporting civilian garments. Someone would come out to … meet the final, and I wasn’t the man that they walked as much as,” Austin mentioned.
Mullen mentioned he sees Austin as persevering with the “pressing” work of constructing a army that appears just like the nation it fights for, by selling not simply Black service members but in addition ladies and different minorities. Nevertheless, he warned that this can be a long-term drawback that won’t be eradicated in a single day.
“We shouldn’t assume that simply because there’s a Black man operating the place that it’s over to him, or that it’s going to be fastened by him,” Mullen mentioned.
Bryan Bender and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.