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Then-General Lloyd Austin III, commander of the US Central Command, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee March 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Then-General Lloyd Austin III, commander of the US Central Command, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee March 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Biden’s Defense Secretary Pick Shows the Revolving Door for Military Contractors Remains

Industry ties were simply taken for granted in Biden’s defense secretary sweepstakes.

Sarah Lazare

 by In These Times

Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden has tapped retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III for the pow­er­ful role of defense sec­re­tary, news out­lets revealed Decem­ber 7. Spec­u­la­tion over who Biden would pick had been brew­ing for weeks. All three top con­tenders for the posi­tion — Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion alum Michèle Flournoy, for­mer Home­land Secu­ri­ty Direc­tor Jeh John­son and Austin — have direct finan­cial ties to the mil­i­tary indus­try, and none can be described as even nom­i­nal­ly pro­gres­sive on for­eign pol­i­cy. Austin, arguably, is not the worst among them: Flournoy comes with an espe­cial­ly hawk­ish record, the most mil­i­tary indus­try ties, and an ide­o­log­i­cal pro-war gus­to that sets her apart. But it’s dif­fi­cult to breathe a sigh of relief about the advance of a retired gen­er­al who over­saw wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syr­ia, and who is on the Board of Direc­tors for the pow­er­ful weapons com­pa­ny Raytheon.

Austin is still list­ed by Raytheon, one of the largest weapons com­pa­nies in the world, as a mem­ber of its board. Raytheon is a major sup­pli­er of bombs to the U.S.-Saudi coali­tion that began wag­ing war on Yemen dur­ing the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion, and the com­pa­ny has aggres­sive­ly lob­bied against any curbs on U.S. weapons sales to the coali­tion. In just one exam­ple, an Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report deter­mined that Raytheon man­u­fac­tured the bomb that killed six peo­ple, chil­dren among them, at a home in Yemen’s Ta’iz gov­er­norate in June 2019. Mark Esper, who served as Don­ald Trump’s Sec­re­tary of Defense before he was fired last month, was a for­mer lob­by­ist for Raytheon — a record for which he, right­ly, attract­ed con­sid­er­able flak.

But Austin’s mil­i­tary indus­try ties don’t stop there. As was first report­ed by The Amer­i­can Prospect, Austin — along with Flournoy — is also a part­ner at Pine Island Cap­i­tal Part­ners. Here’s how the New York Times described the firm in an arti­cle pub­lished on Novem­ber 28: ​“Pine Island Cap­i­tal has been on some­thing of a buy­ing spree this year, pur­chas­ing the weapons sys­tem parts man­u­fac­tur­er Precin­mac and a com­pa­ny until recent­ly known as Meg­gitt Train­ing Sys­tems and now known as InVeris, which sells com­put­er-sim­u­lat­ed weapons train­ing sys­tems to the Pen­ta­gon and law enforce­ment agen­cies.” The same day, The Dai­ly Poster report­ed that the com­pa­ny has boast­ed that its team’s inclu­sion of for­mer gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary offi­cials will help boost profits.

The best thing you can say about Austin, who served in pow­er­ful mil­i­tary roles under Oba­ma, is that he does not hog the spot­light, and he fol­lowed orders when Oba­ma dealt them out. In a world of larg­er-than-life, pro-war per­son­al­i­ties like Jim Mat­tis and Stan­ley McChrys­tal, this has caused some to hope he is not the most harm­ful option. But when it came to his actu­al posi­tions — things that mat­ter when you’re sec­re­tary of defense — Austin often found him­self to the right of a pres­i­dent who, despite his 2008 cam­paign trail image, was no dove. In 2010, as the top com­man­der of U.S. forces in Iraq, Austin advised Pres­i­dent Oba­ma against with­draw­ing troops from Iraq, and said he should instead leave 24,000 troops in the coun­try (there were about 45,000 at the time). Oba­ma, how­ev­er, over­rode this rec­om­men­da­tion, and Austin end­ed up pre­sid­ing over a sig­nif­i­cant troop with­draw­al. As head of Cen­tral Com­mand, which over­sees the Mid­dle East, Austin would go on to rec­om­mend in 2014 that Oba­ma send a ​“mod­est con­tin­gent of Amer­i­can troops, prin­ci­pal­ly Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units” in the fight­ing of ISIS, as para­phrased by the Wash­ing­ton Post. Oba­ma also ini­tial­ly reject­ed this rec­om­men­da­tion, deploy­ing 475 troops, osten­si­bly to pro­vide train­ing, intel­li­gence and equip­ment, and ini­ti­at­ing an air war on ISIS that con­tin­ues to kill civil­ians to this day. 

Austin would pre­side over an expan­sion of this war, which by his retire­ment in 2016 saw 3,600 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq, and U.S. Spe­cial Forces to Syr­ia (although this did not pre­vent him from being crit­i­cized from the right for not doing enough to esca­late mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia). He led Cen­tral Com­mand dur­ing the war in Afghanistan, as well as when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion ini­ti­at­ed U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war on Yemen, which erupt­ed under his charge into a full-blown human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis that has esca­lat­ed under Pres­i­dent Trump.

And then, of course, there is the fact that Austin is a retired gen­er­al who has been tapped to over­see an agency that is sup­posed to be run by civil­ians (although, when oth­er can­di­dates are so close­ly tied to the mil­i­tary indus­try, the line between civil­ian and non-civil­ian is blurred across the board). Because Austin has only been out of the mil­i­tary for four years, he will need a con­gres­sion­al waiv­er to serve in the role of defense sec­re­tary, as did Mat­tis, the first defense sec­re­tary under Pres­i­dent Trump. If approved, Austin will be the first Black defense sec­re­tary in U.S. history.

Even setting aside ideological opposition to U.S. empire or the inertia of violence that defines U.S. militarism across the globe, basic good government types can see the inherent conflicts of interest in the revolving door between industry and government.

That Austin was cho­sen to head the Pen­ta­gon shows that the U.S. polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion around war and mil­i­tarism remains trapped with­in Washington’s revolv­ing door of weapons indus­try con­trac­tors and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. And it shows that the sta­tus quo of the Oba­ma years — which brought us drone wars around the world, pro­tract­ed occu­pa­tion in Afghanistan and cat­a­stro­phe in Yemen — lives on with the incom­ing Biden administration.

It’s worth also tak­ing note of the oth­er top con­tenders who, even though they didn’t make the slot, nonethe­less are close to the Biden admin­is­tra­tion and are almost cer­tain to con­tin­ue exert­ing some influ­ence over the admin­is­tra­tion. For­mer Sec­re­tary of Home­land Secu­ri­ty Jeh John­son is on the board of direc­tors for weapons com­pa­ny Lock­heed Mar­tin. Like Raytheon, Lock­heed Mar­tin has prof­it­ed con­sid­er­ably from the U.S. war in Yemen, even as the war has fall­en out of favor among the main­stream of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. That com­pa­ny infa­mous­ly man­u­fac­tured the bomb that killed 26 chil­dren when it struck a school bus in north­ern Yemen in August 2018.

Under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, John­son presided over a sig­nif­i­cant esca­la­tion in raids and depor­ta­tions, as well as the prac­tice of incar­cer­at­ing chil­dren in immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­ters. In an open let­ter writ­ten to John­son in August 2016, 22 moth­ers held with their chil­dren at the Berks Fam­i­ly Res­i­den­tial Cen­ter in Penn­syl­va­nia plead­ed for their free­dom. ​“Our chil­dren, who range in age from 2 to 16, have been deprived of a nor­mal life,” they wrote.

But it is Flournoy whose record attract­ed the lion’s share of con­cern from many anti-war activists. In addi­tion to Pine Island Cap­i­tal Part­ners, she is also on the board of mil­i­tary con­trac­tor Booz Allen Hamil­ton, which ​“paid her about $440,000 in the last two years, much of it stock awards,” accord­ing to the New York Times. She also cofound­ed Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty (CNAS) — a hawk­ish cen­ter-left think tank that receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the weapons indus­try, includ­ing Raytheon and Lock­heed Mar­tin, where Austin and John­son are respec­tive­ly affil­i­at­ed. Flournoy is also co-founder and man­ag­ing part­ner of Wes­t­Ex­ec Advi­sors, a con­sult­ing firm that includes mil­i­tary con­trac­tors among its clients. Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for sec­re­tary of state, is also one of WestExec’s cofounders, and the orga­ni­za­tion is a ​“strate­gic part­ner” of Pine Island Cap­i­tal Partners.

Beyond these defense indus­try ties, Flournoy’s hawk­ish track record has earned her sig­nif­i­cant ire from anti-war activists. While this record can be traced back all the way to the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, it was the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion where she exert­ed con­sid­er­able influ­ence, as Under Sec­re­tary of Defense for Pol­i­cy from 2009 to 2012, as well as through her role at CNAS. Flournoy pushed to esca­late the war in Afghanistan, strong­ly pressed for the 2011 mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Libya, opposed the com­plete with­draw­al of troops from Iraq, and as recent­ly as 2019 opposed a ban on sell­ing weapons to Sau­di Ara­bia. In a recent let­ter to Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden, pro­gres­sive groups, includ­ing the Yemen Relief and Recon­struc­tion Foun­da­tion and Yemeni Alliance Com­mit­tee, stat­ed, ​“We are con­cerned that Ms. Flournoy has a record of ill-advised for­eign pol­i­cy posi­tions that have often con­flict­ed with your own, and has an opaque his­to­ry of pri­vate-sec­tor activ­i­ty — includ­ing ​‘shad­ow lob­by­ing’ for mil­i­tary con­trac­tors — which has raised ques­tions about poten­tial con­flicts of interest.”

Flournoy has her defend­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly among ​“nation­al secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­als” who cel­e­brat­ed the poten­tial high-lev­el advance­ment of a woman, infu­ri­at­ing the anti-war fem­i­nists I spoke to. And some groups that con­sid­er them­selves lib­er­al or pro­gres­sive on for­eign pol­i­cy expressed ret­i­cence about oppos­ing her. Although she did not get the posi­tion, it will be impor­tant to keep an eye on Flournoy, who will no doubt con­tin­ue to exert influ­ence from CNAS.

If one believes, as I do, that the U.S. mil­i­tary is not a force for good in the world, it is doubt­ful that there is such a thing as a ​“good” sec­re­tary of defense. There is, how­ev­er, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reduc­ing — even mar­gin­al­ly — the harm the U.S. mil­i­tary inflicts across the globe. The field of poten­tial nom­i­nees was, from an anti-war per­spec­tive, dis­mal: None of Biden’s picks for sec­re­tary of defense were going to be pro­gres­sive, even accord­ing to Washington’s stan­dards. His occa­sion­al rhetoric around end­ing ​“for­ev­er wars” aside, Biden nev­er real­ly gave us any rea­son to think he’d steer a course that veers very far from the wars and inter­ven­tions he sup­port­ed — either overt­ly or tac­it­ly — dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, not to men­tion dur­ing his long polit­i­cal career before that. While one must not flat­ten dif­fer­ences between can­di­dates, it is also impor­tant not to sound a note of tri­umph when the absolute worst is avoid­ed but an unac­cept­able sta­tus quo remains, as some have done with respect to the president-elect’s oth­er appoint­ments. Espe­cial­ly when it comes to for­eign pol­i­cy — where the pres­i­dent has the most pow­er to act with­out Con­gress, and where Biden’s appoint­ments have uni­form­ly avoid­ed mean­ing­ful con­ces­sions to the Left — sug­ar­coat­ing real­i­ty is ill-advised.

It’s not too much to ask, at the very least, that ​“pub­lic ser­vants” ele­vat­ed to the high­est ech­e­lons of pow­er not take over agen­cies that reg­u­late and patron­ize the cor­po­ra­tions they were well-com­pen­sat­ed board mem­bers of weeks before tak­ing office, and will like­ly be again once they leave office in a few years. Even set­ting aside ide­o­log­i­cal oppo­si­tion to U.S. empire or the iner­tia of vio­lence that defines U.S. mil­i­tarism across the globe, basic good gov­ern­ment types can see the inher­ent con­flicts of inter­est in the revolv­ing door between indus­try and gov­ern­ment. This revolv­ing door was sim­ply tak­en for grant­ed in Biden’s defense sec­re­tary sweep­stakes. Cer­tain­ly, there has to be some­one in the ​“nation­al secu­ri­ty” world not drown­ing in the largesse of Raytheon, Booz Allen or Lock­heed Mar­tin. And if there isn’t, what does this say about the fun­da­men­tal nature of the U.S. war machine and who it serves?

© 2021 In These Times
Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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