Biden wants his team to look competent. His defense minister made it look chaotic


Biden wants his team to look competent. His defense minister made it look chaotic

Doyle McManus

January 15, 2024

The Pentagon’s labeled disclosure

[Sat. Jan. 6, so not last week]

that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was hospitalized twice without notifying President Biden sparked a controversy that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Austin’s defenders argue that his absence

from his post

had no real world consequences. The Pentagon says his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was in charge at the time

the Secretary

was out of service. And they point out that Austin took responsibility for the mistake.

But these excuses ignore an important element in this baffling episode. Austin has made a serious political blunder: He made it seem as if Biden is not exercising clear command over his own

own c C


The Minister of Defense

blinded his boss,

a mistake that is serious in virtually any organization, civilian or military.

Worse, especially in an election year, he played right into it

one of the Republicans

favorite anti-Biden story

of Republicans

s: their accusation that the president is






Voters often say that when considering candidates for president, they have a

strong leader.

Polls have shown that the former president


Trump, the likely Republican nominee, surpasses Biden on that front in the eyes of most Americans.

fair or not.

Austin inadvertently strengthened the Republican party’s argument. Biden’s critics wasted no time in using the cudgel he handed them.

It raises questions about Joe Biden’s competence, or whether he is really in charge of the White House.


Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, referring to Austin’s AWOL episode. If this government only elective minor surgery for one


Abinet Secretary, what are they possibly hiding about Joe Biden’s health?

That attack was off target; there is no evidence for that

anyone other than Austin



surgery. But the fact that Austin hid his hospitalizations from the White House was bad enough.

This was not a crime; “It was a blunder,” said Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations at Duke University who served on the National Security Council staff in both Democratic and Republican administrations. It disrupted the contrast that the president is trying to draw between chaos and Biden’s mature leadership


claim that he


on the other hand, restored authority and peace to the federal government


the chaos of the Trump years.

[THIS CHRONOLOGY CONSUMES 200 WORDS, SO IM CUTTING IT OUT. DO WE NEED TO INCLUDE A BRIEF RECAP?]///I do not think so. The details of the chronology beyond the summary you provide above are not necessary to understand your argument. We can link to an article that goes into more detail about the timeline. The chronology of Austin’s decisions, which have been deluded over the past ten days, has been baffling to both Republicans and Democrats. The 70-year-old retired Army general was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December, but he did not tell the White House or even Hicks, his second in command at the Pentagon. He reported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on December 1. 22 for a prostatectomy, a surgical procedure requiring general anesthesia, and put Hicks in charge of the Pentagon overnight. But he didn’t tell her he was in the hospital, and he didn’t notify the White House at all. The following week he suffered complications from the surgery, including a urinary tract infection, and was readmitted to the hospital on January 1. 1. The next day, he transferred some of his powers to Hicks, who was vacationing in Puerto Rico, but didn’t tell her why. It wasn’t until Jan. 4, three days after his second hospitalization, that Austin’s staff told Biden’s National security adviser Jake Sullivan, the Secretary of Defense, was ill. Sullivan broke the news to Biden. It wasn’t until January 9 that Biden learned that Austin had been diagnosed with cancer.[END CHRONOLOGY]


so far

The next day, Austin was still at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,

more than almost two



after he checked

be first


time stay

. A Pentagon spokesperson said yes

not not

know why the secretary’s hospital stay had been extended.

“I take full responsibility for my disclosure decisions,” Austin said in a written statement from the hospital. I realize I could have done better.

Austin has been famous

protectively jealous

of his privacy. He keeps his public appearances to a minimum. He spends relatively little time with members of Congress. He avoids the Pentagon press corps.

But those choices come at a price. The


Minister of Defence


a retired army general, has shown himself to be politically tone-deaf.

That weakness is not unknown among military officers. Political insight is not a required core competency in the infantry.

Most generals

even smart, successful four stars

have little experience navigating a strategic environment where everything is political, says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor who worked in the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

That’s one reason why six of the last twelve


Defense ministers have become politicians. Only two of those were career military officers Austin and retired Marine General James


Mattis, who served under Trump.

The White House made clear that it was according to its official position

what Biden’s opinion means

Austin’s inability to communicate was a serious mistake.

It is not optimal that a situation like this continues for so long,

NSC National Security Council

said spokesman John F. Kirby in a painfully understated rebuke.

But Kirby added that Biden has full confidence in Austin and has no plans to fire him.

Biden doesn’t often fire subordinates. Aides say he likes and admires Austin.

in particular.

And he doesn’t need a distracting confirmation process for a new secretary during an election year.

But Austin has made him look like a weak, self-indulgent manager

at a time when Biden is trying to project himself as a strong, decisive leader.

There is a partial solution to this problem.

Austin should publicly submit his resignation to Biden, making it clear that he recognized his mistake and did so


I don’t plan to

doesn’t show any



the president.

Biden can accept or reject the resignation. It would give him a chance to show who is in charge.

Either way, the controversy won’t go away overnight. The Pentagon has launched a 30-day review of what went wrong. The inspector general has launched a separate investigation, which will take longer.

And members of Congress say they plan to hold hearings that will focus on whether the Pentagons claim there was never a hiccup in the chain of command.

Austin may need to talk about his medical history more than he ever wanted to.

He obviously deserves sympathy if

70 year old man

faced with a cancer diagnosis. But Biden deserves sympathy


at. A president should not suffer unnecessary political harm because of one of his own appointees.


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