Nowhere has that dynamic been more apparent than in Biden’s decision this month to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Privately, Austin argued against an unconditional withdrawal on that timeline. But ultimately, Biden went against Austin’s advice, as well as the recommendations of the top military brass. And in the end, Austin said publicly that he fully supported the president’s decision to withdraw.
Some critics claimed at the time that the Pentagon was sidelined in the Afghanistan discussions. But Austin’s defenders chafed at the notion that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are really running the show.
People familiar with the discussions say Biden listened to Austin’s concerns and considered them, but simply chose to go in another direction. Sullivan sent a statement to POLITICO for this story saying Austin consistently provides “sage, stress-tested advice based in the realities on the ground, not anyone’s wishful thinking.”
“When we go around the table in the Situation Room and get to Secretary Austin, everyone leans forward to listen to what he has to say — me most of all,” Sullivan said.
In the first 100 days of the new administration, Austin has faced challenges on multiple fronts, from deploying active-duty troops to support the Covid-19 vaccination effort, to addressing extremism in the ranks. At the same time, he has had to develop a plan to counter China’s rise while overseeing the end of America’s involvement in its longest war.
In many cases, Biden did take Austin’s recommendations. After Iran-backed militias attacked American and allied personnel in Iraq in February, Austin urged Biden to strike back in a surgical, constrained way. Biden took his advice, ordering a measured airstrike in eastern Syria that destroyed buildings belonging to the group and killed several militants.
“Any president deserves a defense secretary who is going to execute his decisions,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat, who spoke with Austin directly about the discussions leading up to the Afghanistan announcement. “I was satisfied that Secretary Austin was at the table … and that his view is being listened to. At the end of the day, it is President Biden’s decision.”
While Austin takes pains to avoid the spotlight, the very nature of his appointment sets him apart. His historic ascension to be the first Black man and person of color to lead the Pentagon comes as the country continues to confront its deep problems with racism.
Austin’s confirmation sent an “extraordinarily important” signal to people of color, inside the military and in the broader American community, said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who worked to break racial barriers at the Pentagon and hired Austin to be his director of the Joint Staff, the first Black man to hold that job.
“For the first time, young people — young Black people — can look up and see somebody who is in this extraordinarily important position who looks like them,” Mullen said.
This story is based on conversations with 10 current and former national security officials who know Austin well, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics. They all described an introverted family man who earned respect for his calm demeanor, steady leadership in difficult situations, and personal courage. While the president does not always take Austin’s advice, he considers and values it, they said.
And true to form, he declined to be interviewed for this article.
The surprise pick
Biden surprised many in the national security community — including Austin himself — in picking the former four-star general as his defense secretary over other top candidates such as Michele Flournoy, former President Barack Obama’s Pentagon policy chief.
In fact, when Austin got the initial call from the transition asking him whether he would be interested in a Cabinet-level position, he agreed to be vetted without knowing for which agency.
Since the announcement, followed by public appearances and a confirmation hearing, Austin has not become any more comfortable with the limelight. He has avoided the cameras except when absolutely necessary, and has addressed the Pentagon press corps from the briefing room only once. He has also limited media engagements on overseas trips, which previous defense secretaries have traditionally used to develop a rapport with reporters covering the building.
Austin’s avoidance of the press has drawn some criticism, even from his allies.
“I do think it’s a responsibility for a secretary of defense to appropriately engage the media so that we know what the positions are of the administration,” said Brown, who initially supported Flournoy to be Pentagon chief but immediately endorsed Austin after the final pick was announced.
Brown said he has noticed that John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, usually speaks on behalf of the secretary, and is “in search of more direct quotes” from Austin himself.
“I would encourage Secretary Austin to spend time with the press and make sure that he is articulating the views, the positions of the administration,” Brown said.
Austin was not initially comfortable in his new role on social media, either. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said she had to talk him into creating a Twitter profile. The Pentagon chief took to the medium quickly and now uses it as a “tool of diplomacy,” she said.
Kirby said Austin “understands well the need to be transparent and to communicate with the American people, and he has set that tone throughout the department.”
“That said, he is driven far more by results than he is by headlines … particularly headlines about him,” Kirby said. “His focus remains on defending the country and providing his best counsel to the Commander-in-Chief to that end. ”
Behind the scenes, officials say Austin presents himself in much the same way. He is often the voice of reason in difficult discussions, and has a defusing effect on his colleagues. This trait has proved useful during meetings on hot topics, such as the Afghanistan withdrawal, where the tone with other advisers often became heated.
“You are never going to see Lloyd get flustered,” said retired Gen. Larry Spencer, the former vice chief of staff of the Air Force who met Austin when the two served on the Joint Staff in the Obama administration. “Nobody would ever mistake Lloyd for somebody they can walk over. But he is a very calming influence … he’s unflappable. He just doesn’t panic.”
The good soldier
Austin broke barriers for people of color in the military over his 40-year career, becoming the first Black general to command an Army division in combat and the first to oversee an entire theater of operations. Among his Army peers, Austin is an “iconic” leader, said retired Gen. Joseph Votel, the former commander of special operations command who took over from Austin as Central Command chief in 2016.
Votel praised Austin’s work in rooting out the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria toward the end of his tenure, noting that his team carried out Austin’s campaign plan to defeat the group — which included targeting the militants’ revenue streams and supporting local partner forces — to the letter.
However, lawmakers criticized Austin for his role in running the U.S. military’s training program for forces in Syria in 2015, which spent some $500 million but produced only a handful of fighters.
Votel got to know Austin when the defense secretary was the corps commander in Iraq. Later, when Austin was commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq and Votel was the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, the two spent long hours together as the administration considered its option for withdrawing forces from the country, Votel said.
Votel shared Austin’s concerns about a full withdrawal from Iraq and agreed with his recommendation that the Pentagon should leave a smaller force on the ground to keep pressure on the al Qaeda network there and maintain the relationship with Baghdad, he said.
But in that case, like today with the Afghanistan drawdown, once the president made a final decision, Austin got on board.
“He executed that with a level of military professionalism that we’ve hopefully come to expect from our military leaders in executing the decisions of our civilian leadership, whether they are popular or unpopular decisions,” Votel said.
Republican hawks were quick to slam the decision, venting that they weren’t given more information on the decision-making process.
Shortly after the Afghanistan decision was announced, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) slammed Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for refusing to answer lawmakers’ questions about what options they provided the president during the debate, and criticized the Biden administration for not taking the advice of the brass.
“You can’t have the president of the United States saying ‘I stood up to the generals,’” Graham said. “You can’t live in a country where the President brags about saying ‘no’ to the military and the military won’t tell the Congress, ‘Well, what options did he have?’”
Austin’s experience in Iraq 10 years ago did not prevent him from speaking his mind during the Afghanistan debate this year. During internal meetings ahead of the decision, Austin made the case for keeping a small force on the ground to allow time for diplomacy to work, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions. He shared the generals’ unease with an unconditional withdrawal with a precise end date, and expressed concern about the country’s long-term stability.
Now that the decision is made, carrying out the withdrawal falls to Austin. In what officials say is a sign of the trust he places in his defense secretary, Biden is not micromanaging the drawdown: He has asked Austin to come up with a plan and execute it unilaterally.
Although Biden does not always take Austin’s advice, the Pentagon chief is one of the president’s most trusted advisers, officials say. Once a week Austin travels across the river to attend the president’s daily briefing at the White House, and afterward has a private audience with the commander in chief. Often, but not always, Milley also attends.
Austin has also developed a close working relationship with Blinken and Sullivan. Once a week the three have a “sync,” which is usually virtual.
While Austin is not as close to Biden as Blinken or Sullivan, who have served as personal advisers for decades, the defense secretary does have personal ties to the president. The two men are both Catholics and worked closely together during the Iraq drawdown. Austin also developed a relationship with Biden’s late son, Beau, during their time in Iraq, and the two kept in touch after Beau returned home.
“It’s the healthiest POTUS-SECDEF relationship I have ever seen. No surprises. Transparency. Debate. Honesty. And mutual respect,” said Kelly Magsamen, Austin’s chief of staff. “That last part is the special sauce between Biden and Austin.”
Rooting out extremism
Inside the Pentagon, Austin is tackling some of the military’s toughest problems. As the first Black defense secretary, Austin has made rooting out racism and extremism one of his top priorities, directing several immediate actions including a rare department-wide one-day “stand down” to discuss the issue.
The problem is of particular importance to Austin after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists, including several veterans and people with military ties. The military removed at least a dozen National Guard members from the mission supporting inauguration after background checks revealed extremism links. Several other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, are undergoing internal reviews to handle white supremacy and extremism.
But the Pentagon stand down was not directed by the White House. Even before Jan. 6, Austin knew he wanted to take action to address extremism in the ranks. When he took office in January, his staff presented various options, but he ultimately decided the stand down — the military term for a work day devoted to discussing the problem in a group setting — was the best way to send a message to commanders across the military and to hear from the rank-and-file.
After hearing partial results from the stand down, which occurred over a 60-day period starting in February, Austin stood up a countering extremism working group led by Bishop Garrison, who he appointed the senior adviser on human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion, to examine how to better vet recruits and educate service members.
“There is never a wrong time to do the right thing,” Votel said, praising Austin’s efforts so far as “well-considered.” “To not pay attention to this in the environment that our country is right now I think would be ignorant and I think would be irresponsible.”
Meanwhile, Austin also appointed members to a congressionally-mandated commission on renaming military bases and other DoD facilities that commemorate the Confederacy, and established an independent panel to provide recommendations on dealing with sexual assault and harassment in the military.
Austin has deep experience dealing with extremism. During his time at the 82nd Airborne, members of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads shot and murdered two Black people in nearby Fayetteville, N.C., plunging the unit into crisis.
“We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for,” Austin said about the incident during his confirmation hearing. “But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to — but we learned from that.”
In media interviews this year, Austin recounted his own experience with discrimination, both in his civilian life and during his military career. Austin recalled seeing segregated bathrooms at a bus station while growing up in the Deep South, and feeling a “conscious bias” during his military assignments.
As the 82nd Airborne’s first Black operations officer in 1995, then-Lt. Col. Austin had a white officer give his briefings because he felt the other white officers “were more likely to listen,” he told CBS News ‘60 Minutes’ in March.
The discrimination didn’t end when he rose to the military’s highest rank of four-star general.
“I would go someplace with my staff, and we were wearing civilian clothes. Somebody would come out to … meet the general, and I wasn’t the guy that they walked up to,” Austin said.
Mullen said he sees Austin as continuing the “urgent” work of building a military that looks like the country it fights for, by promoting not just Black service members but also women and other minorities. However, he warned that this is a long-term problem that will not be eliminated overnight.
“We shouldn’t think that just because there is a Black man running the place that it’s over to him, or that it’s going to be fixed by him,” Mullen said.
Bryan Bender and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.