(CN) — Departing a tradition of selecting civilians to lead the Defense Department, President-elect Joe Biden asked Congress for a waiver Wednesday afternoon that would give the job to General Lloyd Austin III.
“I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history did not call for it, it does call for it,” Biden said in a speech streamed online, “and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin to ask for it.”
The four-star general with more than 40 years of military service retired in 2016, but the law requires him to have been out of uniform for seven years before he can lead the Pentagon as a civilian.
Exceptions to this rule can be granted by the House and the Senate, but have only occurred twice in the country’s history, most recently in 2017 for General Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary.
In his plea to Congress, Biden assured that Austin can do the job and do it well.
“There is no doubt in my mind whether this nominee will honor, respect and on a day-to-day breathe life into the preeminent principle of civilian leadership over military matters in our nation,” said Biden. “I know this man, I know his respect for our Constitution, and I know his respect for our system of government.”
If the waiver is granted and Austin is confirmed, he would be the first African-American to hold the position — a move that Biden called long overdue.
“More than 40% of our active-duty forces are people of color,” said Biden. “It’s long past time that the department’s leadership represents that diversity.”
Biden continued to praise Austin during the nearly 30-minute announcement, saying he is the “definition of duty, honor and country.”
The president-elect further said he has the utmost trust in Austin to get the military-civilian dynamic back on track, noting that it has been “under great stress” the last four years.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke as well, with more accolades for Austin.
“Throughout America’s history, the United States military has been a home for generations of young men and women dedicated to serving our country, General Austin among them,” Harris said. “With this nomination, he will continue his service, strengthening not only America’s national security, but also our role as a partner to allies around the world. And we couldn’t be more proud.”
Austin expressed gratitude to Biden and Harris for their confidence in him to take on the role, saying it would be a great honor to lead the department.
“I come to this role as a civilian leader with military experience to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military,” Austin said Wednesday. “As secretary of defense, my priority always will be the men and women, military and civilian who make up the department and their families.”
In a Tuesday press release announcing Austin as his defense secretary pick, Biden said that his many duties will include playing a key role in distribution of a vaccine against Covid-19 as well as addressing the threat of climate change and modernizing the military.