Biden says pick for Pentagon chief can help bring end to “forever wars”

Washington, Dec 9 (efe-epa).- The president-elect of the United States on Wednesday said his pick to lead the Defense Department is the person best suited to ending the country’s “forever wars.”

Joe Biden made his remarks at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, while introducing retired Army four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin, who if confirmed by the Senate would become the first-ever African-American defense secretary.

He noted that Austin was the first African-American general to lead an Army Corps in combat and to “command an entire theater of war,” and said his experience makes him the best choice for bringing troops back home.

“We need his firsthand knowledge of the immeasurable cost of war and the burden it places on our service members and their families to help bring to an end to the forever wars,” Biden said.

The president-elect did not refer explicitly to the war in Afghanistan, the longest in US history, nor to other US troop deployments in countries such as Somalia, Syria and Iraq.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has announced troop withdrawals in all of those places and said troop levels in both Afghanistan and Iraq will be lowered to 2,500 in each country by mid-January, shortly before he is scheduled to depart the White House.

Both Biden, who has criticized Trump’s treatment of US allies, and Austin said during the event that rebuilding and modernizing the US’s traditional alliances will be a top priority and specifically mentioned the European and Asia-Pacific regions.

“I fervently believe … that America is strongest when it works with its allies … And, if confirmed, I look forward to resuming this important work,” Austin said.

He served between 2013 and 2016 as head of the US Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of South Asia.

A significant obstacle, however, stands in the way of Austin’s confirmation.

Under a 2008 law, former active-duty military officers must be retired from the armed forces for seven years before they are eligible for appointment as defense secretary. The waiting period had initially been 10 years under the National Security Act of 1947.

Austin, however, retired from the US Army just four years ago.

Biden therefore has asked Congress to grant a special waiver for Austin, such as the one approved by both houses in early 2017 to allow Gen. Jim Mattis – Trump’s first defense secretary – to lead the Pentagon after less than three years in retirement.

“I would not be asking for an exception here if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it,” Biden said. “I believe in the importance of civilian control of our military – so does Secretary-designate Austin.”

However, several Democratic senators who voted against a waiver for Mattis have already said it would not be coherent for them to change their position now.

They include three members of the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee: Tammy Duckworth of Illinois; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was a rival of Biden’s for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination; and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana and ranking member of the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, also has said he will not support a waiver.

Seventeen senators and 151 lower-house representatives from both parties voted against granting a waiver to Mattis in 2017. Even so, it still was approved by wide margins in both houses of Congress.

The Democrats will have a slim majority in the House of Representatives when the 117th US Congress begins meeting in early January. Biden’s party also could control the Senate by the narrowest of margins if the Democrats win two Georgia runoff elections scheduled for Jan. 5.

Nevertheless, it is still unclear how much opposition there will be to a second waiver in a span of just four years, and it is possible that Biden will need Republican support to secure Austin’s place in his Cabinet. EFE-EPA

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