Women Lose Identity Politics Battle Over Biden’s Pentagon Pick

Women Lose Identity Politics Battle Over Biden’s Pentagon Pick

For an era of Great Power competition, General Lloyd Austin is a baffling pick to be the next secretary of defense and has divided leftist identitarians.
Sumantra Maitra
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In an essay that ticks all the boxes of identity politics, Joe Biden has written a lengthy justification on why he chose retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon. Biden writes Austin was chosen to ensure “every member of the armed forces is treated with dignity and respect, including Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, women, and LGBTQ service members.”

Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., made the subtext here even more explicit, saying that a serious part of his motivation to vote for waiving the seven-year waiting period for military leaders to take civilian Defense leadership in Austin’s case is skin color.

In the essay, Biden mentions Austin is a general shaped by two decades of war and is only the sixth black American to be a four-star general. Then, he quickly moves on to imagining his version of global politics, which closely mirrors what a third Obama term likely would have entailed.

Mentioning that Austin is part of the “diverse national-security leadership team that reflects the lived experiences of all Americans,” Biden writes his foreign policy will be instrumental in leading with diplomacy and putting American leadership back to tackle the most pressing global threats, including — wait for it — pandemics, climate change, and the refugee crisis.

While social-justice started to creep into the armed forces during the Obama years, attempts that have continued ever since, this is the first time a president-elect is on record to declare that he has selected someone purely for ensuring that service members are treated with dignity according to specific leftist identity groups. Yet, there is something even more insidious: there was not a single mention of the word “China” or “Navy” in the whole essay.

Meanwhile, opposition to Austin’s nomination is in full swing, as leftist identitarians split into two tribes reminiscent of the Obama-Hillary divide. After Biden overlooked Michele Flournoy — who appeared to have a lock on the nomination — and picked Austin, a meltdown ensued among those who still believe that old “glass ceiling” remains.

Leading the charge were Katrina Mulligan, Rosa Brooks, and Kori Schake, all of whom wrote extensively in favor of Flournoy, who was a mentor to a lot of women in the national security field, and who would have likely found herself in the Hillary Clinton cabinet that, it turns out, was never needed. Supporting Austin was Susan Rice, Clinton, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass, and former Ambassador Dana Shell Smith. This divide was also based on identity and not policy.

Another hurdle to Austin’s appointment lies in his would-be contravention of the normative “seven-year rule,” reduced from a former time gap of ten years. Simply put, former and retired military leaders are supposed to be out of uniform for at least a minimum of seven years before they are allowed to take senior positions at the Pentagon, including the roles of secretary of defense and deputy secretary of defense. The idea is to ensure strong civilian control over the military and discourages Praetorianism, unlike failed states like Egypt or Pakistan, where the military essentially controls policy even while officially not in charge.

That rule was broken during the appointment of Gen. James Mattis under Trump, and several of those who supported or opposed it last time now curiously find their roles reversed. For example, Kori Schake was on record about Mattis’s selection being a precedent but now opposes Austin’s nomination. Given her support of Flournoy, it is not difficult to understand why.

Likewise, Khanna, who voted against Mattis, is willing to consider Austin simply because he’s a black American. None of these considerations are predicated on the actual norm of civilian control, nor are they focused on Austin’s positions or beliefs.

Indeed, no one knows that much about what Austin’s policies are. We do know, as per Politico, that he’s a “devout Catholic,” not very politically correct, and an honest man. For example, in 2015, Austin testified that training moderate rebels in Syria was an utter disaster and that $500 million the Pentagon spent in Syria resulted in the training of only “five or six” individuals.

One thing we do know is that Austin is arguably running against the tide on retrenchment. Given that a majority of Americans, including veterans, increasingly favor pulling troops out of the Middle East, Austin still argues in support of a strong foreign presence:

I believe we should be doing all we can to preserve our current forward presence to the greatest extent possible rather than cede ground and regional partnerships. We should extend and expand on our lessons learned, showing the benefits of long-term investments in theaterwide infrastructure and the capabilities of joint and combined pre-positioning of common enablers such as ballistic missile defense, cyber, C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, and ISR], and transregional strategic mobility assets.

As a growing chorus across the political spectrum calls for winding down overseas troop deployments, a call to extend and expand may well go down like the Hindenburg. Austin argues, “In the Middle East, greater Levant, and the Central Asian States, the United States enjoys a very mature forward presence and transregional security architecture.” Whether that is a prudent or sound strategy for the current balance of power where unipolarity is no longer the norm was never debated.

It’s not too hard to find explanations for why Flournoy wasn’t chosen. Flournoy and Biden clashed over the troop surge in Afghanistan and the Middle East during the Obama years. Biden was also the only one who opposed the Libya fiasco, but was overruled by Samantha Power and Rice.

It remains unclear, however, why Austin was chosen, given that his expertise is in counter-terrorism, and not great-power rivalry. President Trump wasn’t elected to make the Middle East great again. Terrorism is Europe’s problem to solve, and France is showing how future Euro policies will be regarding the issue of tackling radical Islam.

The only plausible reason, therefore, is either Biden has a personal bond with Austin —  who, by all accounts is a very decent guy — or that Biden has chosen to placate one group of identitarians over the other.

Dr. Sumantra Maitra is an ECR member at the Royal Historical Society (United Kingdom), and a fellow at Martin Center (United States). He is a senior contributor to The Federalist. He can be found on Twitter, @MrMaitra.

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