The Senate confirmed Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as President Biden’s Pentagon chief in a vote of 93 to 2, with Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) as the sole “no” votes.
Congress granted Austin a waiver on Thursday that allowed him to take the position. Under US law, a secretary of defense must be at least seven years removed from military service. Since Austin retired in 2016, a waiver was necessary.
Both Democrats and Republicans initially voiced opposition to the waiver, citing the fact that James Mattis was granted one so recently, in 2017. But ultimately, Congress approved the waiver.
Since retiring from the Army, Austin served on the board of the weapons maker Raytheon. But there seems to be little concern with this clear conflict of interest. During Tuesday’s confirmation hearings, Austin pledged to recuse himself for four years from making decisions that involve Raytheon, which was good enough for Congress.
Republican China hawks were not thrilled about Austin when he was first nominated due to his lack of experience in dealing with Asia. To offset this concern, Biden hired Ely Ratner to advise Austin. Ratner is a China hawk who works for the interventionist Center for a New American Security think tank.
Austin oversaw President Obama’s Middle East policies as the head of US Central Command from 2013 to 2016. According to journalist Mark Perry, Austin was infuriated when the Obama administration decided to back the Saudis in the war in Yemen in 2015.
Austin was unhappy about supporting the Saudis because right before the intervention, Yemen’s Houthis were an intelligence-sharing partner with the US in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Biden has pledged the end US support for the war, something Antony Blinken reiterated during his confirmation hearing. Austin’s early opposition to the war is a sign that the administration might follow through and end the war.