Retired four-star Army general Lloyd Austin, has been appointed as the first African American defense secretary shattering a racial barrier for the nation at a time when the military is assessing possible extremism in its ranks after the Capitol riot and reshaping the force to counter China.
The Senate confirmed Austin in a 93-to-2 vote, giving the incoming Pentagon boss a near-unanimous bipartisan congressional mandate as he sets about overseeing the 2.9 million service members and civilians around the world who fall under the umbrella of the Defense Department.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” Austin said in a statement on Twitter after his confirmation. “Let’s get to work.”
Austin faces the task of accelerating and expanding the Defense Department’s involvement in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines. He also must restore alliances that frayed during President Donald Trump’s tenure, make hard choices in the Pentagon budget to compete with a rising Chinese military and deal with questions about possible internal threats.
Austin, 67, is likely to also face the task of fully winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, a goal that President Biden’s two predecessors campaigned on but failed to achieve.
For Austin to be confirmed, the House and Senate first had to pass a waiver exempting him from a law that requires defense secretaries to be out of uniform for seven years before occupying the top civilian post at the Pentagon.
Austin’s confirmation caps a career in which the Thomasville, Ga., native and U.S. Military Academy graduate has notched a number of firsts, becoming the first African American to command an infantry division in combat and the first African American to lead U.S. Central Command, the unit of the U.S. military responsible for operations in the Middle East.
An African American first ascended to the uniformed military’s top post in 1989, when Colin L. Powell became the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would take more than 31 additional years for an African American to be chosen as the Pentagon’s top civilian leader, a lag that Austin described as troublesome in video comments before his confirmation.
“It’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” Austin said. “There is kind of a sad commentary here, and that is, it shouldn’t have taken us this long to get here. There should have been someone that preceded me.”