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Intensely private, Biden's pick for defense secretary is thrust into eligibility battle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ask anyone who knows retired Army General Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary, and two descriptions come up again and again - intensely private and razor-sharp.

But Austin, who studiously avoided the spotlight during his long military career, even as he led troops in war, is about to be thrust into perhaps the most personal, public battle of his life over his eligibility as a candidate to lead the Pentagon.

The selection of Austin, 67, was announced on Tuesday by Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20. But to become defense secretary, Austin will have to help secure votes from Congress to waive a law - designed to ensure civilian oversight of the uniformed military - that requires retired top brass to have hung up their uniforms for at least seven years. Austin only retired in 2016.

Congress waived the requirement four years ago for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, who became President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary. Many U.S. officials believe the House of Representatives and Senate will ultimately do that again for Austin, particularly given the historic opportunity to confirm the first Black U.S. defense secretary.

But it will not be easy.

“I will not support the waiver,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding he had the “deepest respect and admiration” for Austin.

Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin, a top Pentagon official in former President Barack Obama’s administration, warned that choosing Austin for the job “just feels off.”

“The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military,” Slotkin said, saying she would have to hear from the Biden administration before voting for a waiver.

His nomination could also draw fire from some progressive groups given his role on the board of a number of companies, including weapons maker Raytheon Technologies Corp.

FILE PHOTO: Iraq's acting defence minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi (R) greets Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Lloyd Austin during a meeting in Baghdad May 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Austin’s resume includes 41 years in uniform. He is a former commander in Iraq and also helped guide the war in Afghanistan as head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops across the Middle East.

But current and former U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, say he kept his advice for the Obama administration private and was careful not to lobby for positions through the media. Biden might want a lower-profile Pentagon, they speculate.

Still, Austin’s low profile makes his views on policy issues outside the Middle East something of a mystery. Sources expect Austin to champion traditional Pentagon norms, like the importance of alliances, often scorned by Trump.

But beyond that, little is clear, including how he might approach global challenges like China.

“There’s some growing he’s going to have to do,” said one former U.S. official. “He’s an intensely private person and this is an intensely public position ... on a global stage.”

Biden, explaining his choice, extolled Austin’s performance “under pressure” in wartime, praised his diplomatic skills and underscored the historic importance of Austin’s role for promoting diversity in the Pentagon.

“He is the person we need in this moment,” the Democratic president-elect wrote in The Atlantic.

MESSAGE TO MILITARY ON DIVERSITY

Biden's selection of Austin makes good his pledge to bring diversity to the Cabinet and, proponents of the choice argue, will send a powerful message to a Pentagon that is regularly criticized for failing to promote Black servicemembers and whose top leadership has been largely white. here

“While the military was a leader in integration early on, they have fallen behind when it comes to diversity in the upper ranks,” said one source familiar with Biden’s decision.

But critics of the decision note that Biden’s other finalists for that job would have also brought diversity: Jeh Johnson, a former homeland security secretary with Pentagon experience, is Black. Michele Flournoy, who had been seen as the front-runner, would have been the first woman in the job.

Hours before the news broke on Monday, the Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, voiced his preference for Flournoy, saying she was “hands-down the best-qualified person to do the job.”

Biden had already made his choice at that point, apparently without consulting Congress.

“We were not consulted. I’m not sure there was any reason we should have been,” said Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who voiced support for a waiver.

Austin was in favor of keeping more troops in Iraq than Obama’s administration was comfortable with, and often communicated his views directly to Biden, who was Obama’s vice president.

Two sources familiar with Biden’s decision said it was the trust that Austin forged with Biden that played a decisive role in what came down to a “gut decision” in favor of Austin. Biden was also comforted that Austin knew the cost of war firsthand, having buried soldiers.

“You’re not going to see Austin turn to the military first to resolve a problem,” said one former official who knows him.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Michael Martina in Detroit; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney

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