WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden got a boost Friday, with lawmakers giving final approval to his secretary of defense, who becomes only the second Cabinet member to be confirmed as the administration seeks to push back against key adversaries.
The Senate voted 93-2 to confirm retired General Lloyd Austin, making him the first African American to lead the Department of Defense.
Austin wasted little time getting to work, arriving at the Pentagon just over an hour later to take the oath of office, receive an intelligence briefing and meet with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior defense officials.
He was also scheduled to speak by phone with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and get additional operational briefings on China and the Middle East.
In a message to U.S. troops, Austin said his first priority as defense secretary was to boost the country's efforts to "get control" of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We must help the federal government move further and faster to eradicate the devastating effects of the coronavirus," he wrote, praising the work that the U.S. military had already done.
Austin also pledged to make sure troops "have the tools, technology, weapons and training to deter and defeat our enemies."
"It means establishing sound policy and strategy and assigning you clear missions," he wrote, adding it also required "putting a premium on cooperation with our allies and partners."
The Senate's vote to confirm Austin came less than 24 hours after both the Senate and the House approved a legally required waiver that would allow Austin, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, to take the civilian post, less than seven years after retiring from the military.
Countering US adversaries
Despite an initial focus on the pandemic, Austin will also have to grapple quickly with military policy to counter U.S. adversaries, including Russia and Iran.
The Biden administration announced Thursday that it was seeking a five-year extension of New START, one of the last remaining arms control treaties with Russia.
The treaty, which permits the United States and Russia to deploy no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and puts limits on the missile delivery systems, is set to expire in February.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also confirmed Thursday that Biden was asking the intelligence community for assessments on suspect Russian actions, including the SolarWinds cyberhack, interference in November's presidential election, the use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The newly confirmed Austin will likely have to confront key policy decisions on Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, writing in Foreign Affairs, challenged the Biden administration Friday to change Washington's approach to Tehran, accusing former President Donald Trump of further ensnaring the U.S. in regional divisions and tensions.
"U.S. President Joe Biden can choose a better path by ending Trump's failed policy of 'maximum pressure' and returning to the deal his predecessor abandoned," Zarif asserted. "But if Washington instead insists on extracting concessions, then this opportunity will be lost."
During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, though, Austin argued it was Tehran that needed to move first for Washington to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal.
"The preconditions for us considering to re-enter into that agreement would be that Iran meet the conditions outlined in the agreement ... back to where they should have been," he told lawmakers, adding that additional concerns about Iran's destabilizing behavior and ballistic missile program also could not be ignored.
Other pressing concerns include what direction to take in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, where Trump oversaw recently concluded troop drawdowns.
Biden's national security team
With Friday's vote in the Senate, Austin became just the second member of the new U.S. security team to be confirmed.
Lawmakers confirmed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines late Wednesday. Haines, the first woman to lead U.S. intelligence, was sworn in early Thursday and took part in the president's daily intelligence briefing.
In a statement Thursday, she said the work of the country's intelligence agencies "has never been more vital to our nation's security or prosperity."
Despite the confirmation of Haines and Austin, additional critical positions - at the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Central Intelligence Agency - remain unfilled.
The Senate is expected to move soon on other key nominees, such as former Ambassador William Burns, tapped to run the CIA.
VOA Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.