President-elect Joe Biden rode a wave of anti-Trump support to a decisive victory in the 2020 elections by promising to restore norms, ethics, and transparency to Washington. But one of his most prominent cabinet appointees is already in violation of that promise — and is provoking criticism from some Democratic Senators.
The appointment of retired U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin III, who would be our nation’s first Black Secretary of Defense, looks like a slam-dunk at first glance. But Gen. Austin has only been out of the military for four years, three less than the required seven years out of the armed forces under regulations designed to ensure civilian control over the military.
Donald Trump was widely criticized for obtaining a waiver to make Gen. James Mattis his Secretary of Defense, which was happily handed to him by a Republican-controlled Senate for only the second time in our nation’s history. Now Joe Biden looks to flout that norm again and follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by obtaining a waiver for Gen. Austin, raising concerns about the implications of yet another waiver for the future of civilian control of the military.
“I have the deepest respect and admiration for Gen. Austin, and his nomination is exciting and historic. But I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” said Blumenthal.
Not only is Biden already failing to restore the norms that he promised he would, but he’s also opening up an ethical can of worms by appointing Gen. Austin. The recently retired military leader currently earns $350,000 a year to sit on the board of Raytheon, the defense and military contractor who currently maintains a $70 billion contract backlog to the Department of Defense.
Austin’s material ties to a company that reaps enormous profits from the Department of Defense presents an obvious conflict of interests.
Not only does the U.S. military funnel billions of dollars to companies like Raytheon for weapons and materiel, but so do our “allies” like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — who have used Raytheon-made missiles to commit war crimes in their murderous war against the Houthi rebels of Yemen, which has killed over 100,000 people.
The flood of American-made weapons to Saudi Arabia began under the Obama-Biden administration and has been lustily expanded by the Trump administration. While we do not know how a Biden administration would deal with the crisis in Yemen, one must ask if we can trust a man who has spent just four of the past forty-five years out of a military uniform and drew a six-digit salary from a missile company to use his position to stand up to his former patrons on behalf of human rights?
The Trump administration treated the American military-industrial complex as the world’s weapons cabinet, selling deadly munitions and technology to authoritarian regimes left and right while drastically escalating the pace of American bombing campaigns across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, leaving tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered in its wake.
If President Joe Biden and his team truly want to prove to the nation that they are committed to washing the corruption and nihilistic cruelty of the Trump administration out of Washington D.C., they should proudly choose a candidate without the legal and ethical baggage that would accompany Gen. Austin’s nomination. The Defense Secretary of the United States can end countless lives at the drop of a button; he should not have ties to those that profit from those deaths.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.