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Something for Us To Learn From Appointments in American Politics
Then-Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Lloyd Austin listens to feedback during the Network Integration Evaluation 12.2 at White Sands Missile Range on May 17, 2012. ( U.S. Army photo by Capt. Casey Dean)

Something for Us To Learn From Appointments in American Politics

Ma’ariv, Israel, December 20

Joe Biden’s announcement of his nomination of Lloyd Austin as his candidate for secretary of defense has launched a heated debate in the United States. Austin is a retired four-star general (the highest rank in the United States in peacetime, and one above the IDF major general). Austin served 41 years in the army, and in his last two positions was vice chief of staff of the army and commander of the US Central Command in charge of the Middle East. If appointed, he will be the first African American in the role of defense secretary. The post of secretary of defense was created only after World War II, and is one of the most important in any American administration. It stands above political considerations, and proof of this is found in the practice of presidents appointing a representative of the rival party to the post. Democrat Barack Obama appointed two Republicans to the post, Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel. Trump, on the other hand, undermined this tradition by replacing five secretaries within four years and firing the last secretary, Mark Esper, who opposed the use of the military to suppress demonstrations and riots in cities. The debate over Austin concerns his suitability for the role. His skin color may also play a role in the debate. In the United States, the law sets a seven-year cooling-off period for generals whom presidents want to appoint as defense secretary. In exceptional cases, Congress may grant an exemption to this rule. Only two presidents have applied for, and received, such an exemption: Harry Truman, who appointed Gen. George Marshall, and Trump, who appointed Gen. James Mattis. Contrary to the cooling-off period mandated in Israel, which is designed to prevent internal competition in the Army, the main reason for this norm in the United States is the need to maintain the superiority of the civilian echelon over the military echelon. Austin retired from the military in 2016, so he needs an exemption from Congress. His critics address the issue of the exemption and its suitability for the job in the post-Trump era. Opinion pieces published in The New York Times and The Washington Post admit that the situation of the Pentagon and the military is indeed very bad, but does not justify the appointment of a recently released military general. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former General of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell welcomed the appointment. On the other hand, Obama’s secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, and senior officers who have worked with Austin, claimed he is unfit. Austin served as commander of the United States forces in Iraq, and has made several incorrect assessments about the military situation in Iraq, ISIS and Syria. His appointment may run into Republican opposition in the Senate. It is a pity that Biden did not appoint veteran Michèle Flournoy, who served as deputy secretary of defense and was considered a leading candidate. She could also have been the first woman in office. It is also a pity that there is no serious discussion in Israel about the suitability of former chiefs of staff and generals for the positions of prime minister and government ministers. The experience of the past two years has taught us that a two-year cool-off period is insufficient and that generals who take a quick leap into politics are bound to crash and fail. In this regard, it would be wise for us to learn more from the United States. – Eitan Gilboa (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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