Salvo 01.10.2024 5 minutes

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Must Go

Defense Secretary Austin Delivers Remarks At Ukraine Defense Contact Group Meeting

His latest scandal is the capstone of an abysmal tenure.

Last weekend it was revealed that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was receiving intensive care at Walter Reed National Medical Center, leaving his whereabouts unknown even to the White House and top defense officials for at least three days. I’m sorry to hear of Austin’s medical challenge and wish him a speedy recovery and good health. Nevertheless, there was a deception afoot to keep his hospitalization a secret as the military remains engaged in conflict abroad.

This is unacceptable behavior from the nation’s top defense official and cannot be allowed to stand as an acceptable precedent. Lloyd Austin must go.

While incapacitated from his ability to command the force, Austin left the Pentagon under the belief that he was working from home. To top it off, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks was vacationing in Puerto Rico and unaware of the nature of her boss’s absence. This is the equivalent of going AWOL, leaving the world’s largest military without top civilian supervision when the U.S. is involved in two ongoing wars.

Unfortunately, Secretary Austin is a man who puts his desires first, the hallmark of someone who cannot be trusted with the responsibilities that come with the office he now holds. This ongoing scandal is merely the latest indicator of the former general’s lack of character.

Lloyd Austin was an unlikely choice for secretary of defense from the beginning. Typically, presidents do not nominate retired generals for the role. One reason is that men who rise through the generals’ ranks are accustomed to tremendous deference and are not used to justifying their requests and actions to others. They are known to lack the skills required to maneuver among the executive cabinet, legislative branch, and the myriad of governmental and non-governmental agencies the military is integrated with. Congress even had to go through a waiver process to allow such a nomination to advance.

To be fair, retired General James Mattis served as defense secretary during most of the Trump Administration. But Mattis brought to the role a well-known reputation as a scholar-warrior, and was well respected among the rank and file. Yet even he proved unable to set aside the habits of a general and master the openly political role of cabinet secretary in a presidential administration.

Compared to Mattis’s career, Austin’s tenure as a military officer was far more subdued and unimpressive. He followed the traditional career path of former generals into the lucrative realm of defense contracting, and was not viewed with a sense of awe by those still serving. As an officer and cabinet official, Austin proved content to preside over deliberate institutional decline. Furthermore, he displays an arrogant indifference to rules and ideas not his own. It has come to the point that even the largely Democratic-aligned Pentagon Press Association launched a protest letter over his apathy toward basic disclosure. The cost of his approach to the integrity of the armed forces—especially when measured in lives lost—seems to be of no consequence.

Austin’s performance as defense secretary over the past three years has been a master class in failure.

The image of him walking a reception line during a 2021 visit to the Philippines, masked and wearing a visor, became an iconic emblem of his tenure, and U.S. leadership under the Biden regime. This visualization fits his accomplishments, which include falsely labeling the force a hotbed of terrorist sympathizers and white nationalists, forcing over 8,000 patriotic Americans out of uniform over a now-ended, unlawful shot mandate, the fall of Kabul in 2021, failed Defense Department audits every year of his tenure, the worst military recruiting crisis of the post-1973 all-volunteer force, the steepest decline of public trust in the military since Vietnam, breaking federal law to fund abortions using military dollars, and dragging the Defense Department into every cultural battle of the day. The list could go on.

At a time when the DOD desperately needed a leader, it got merely another incompetent government official. Rather than realize the damage done, Austin’s Pentagon is doubling down, asking for $114 million more for DEI initiatives as America’s military is facing a severe depletion of personnel, morale, and equipment due to his policies.

At every turn, Austin’s performance as defense secretary has proven a liability. Imagine an employee, or even a CEO, being allowed to remain on the job after three years of such a disastrous record. It seems in the military, the phrase “eff up, and move up” remains an accurate insight on one avenue of career enhancement.

Personnel accountability is a fundamental principle of military life. Having spent four decades in uniform, Mr. Austin knows this well. The risk of making such a selfish move to keep his whereabouts secret cannot be overstated. As the man in charge of the world’s most powerful military, the defense secretary does not have the same right to hide out as an unemployed civilian.

As a company commander in the U.S. Army, I could not lay aside my command responsibilities without informing my senior commander, executive officer, and first sergeant, and activating provisions to deal with unexpected contingencies. With both the defense secretary and his deputy off the job, who was on call at the top to make and implement emergency national security decisions? What civilian oversight monitored U.S. military strikes in Iraq last week? Those who know the answer to these questions are not saying, which is a strong indicator that no one was left in charge at the highest level.

Had this been the behavior of a company, battalion, brigade, or division commander, that officer would most assuredly be relieved. Had it been a lower enlisted soldier, he or she would very likely be preparing to stand before the commander for an article 15 (non-judicial punishment) procedure, or worse. What happens when the Pentagon’s top boss secretly drops off the radar? Based on reporting thus far, nothing at all.

When the military relieves commanders, it’s because of a loss of trust and confidence in that person’s ability to lead. In the past three years, we have witnessed the greatest record of dereliction of duty from any secretary of defense since the McNamara era. The president, himself the subject of reasonable questions regarding his cognitive abilities, may make the blunder of retaining his trust in Mr. Austin. But make no mistake, the defense secretary has impeached himself before the military’s rank and file with this unapologetic display of casual disregard for the weight of his office, not to mention a double standard in behavior that is unacceptable for members of the uniformed force. The only way to recover a modicum of respect for and halt further damage to the office of secretary of defense is for Lloyd Austin to tender an immediate resignation.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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