A few minutes after 5 p.m. on Friday, January 5, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder issued one of the weirdest press releases ever. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Ryder said apropos of nothing, was doing fine in the hospital where he had spent the previous week, “following a recent elective medical procedure.”
That is all.
Naturally, people wanted to know more. Why was Austin in the hospital? How long had he been there? The Pentagon, for its part, skimped on the details. Austin’s team was tight-lipped, as if an unaccounted-for national-security principal, suffering an undisclosed illness, was no biggie. The mystery of the missing defense secretary grew.
It turned out that, beyond a few close advisers, no one in the U.S. government had had any idea where Austin was or how he had been doing between New Year’s Day, when he was admitted to Walter Reed Medical Center, and January 4, when his chief of staff conveyed his status to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and to White House National-Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who informed President Biden.
In other words: The president of the United States, amid a rapidly deteriorating international environment, had spent at least one week without speaking to—or knowing the location of—his secretary of defense.
No worries, though. “The president would not accept a resignation if Austin were to offer one,” reported Politico.
Figures. Why, at the outset of an election year, would Biden fire the first black secretary of defense, who to all appearances has been nothing but loyal, who had been close to the president’s late son, Beau, and whose hospitalization, it was further revealed, was due to complications from prostate-cancer treatment? Why indeed, when the episode implied that Austin is far removed from Biden’s inner circle, where foreign-policy is hashed out, Nixon-like, within the White House grounds, and with domestic political imperatives always in mind? Why should Austin face sanction when Biden personnel routinely engage in inept and bizarre behavior with no apparent consequence?
The specific circumstances of Austin’s hospitalization—beginning with the fact that no one would have batted an eye if the secretary had actually been forthright about his condition from the get-go—might have been unusual. Yet the entire episode was par for the course for an administration that entered office promising to restore stability, normality, and comity after four years of Donald Trump…and then stood there and watched as everything fell apart.
Recall the aftermath of the 2020 election. As Trump tried to reverse the outcome, Biden announced his cabinet selections. Headlines celebrated Biden’s nominees as seasoned, even-keeled, ready on Day One. “Governing is back,” cheered E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. “Competence is making a comeback,” wrote the AP’s Jonathan Lemire. “Joe Biden’s Cabinet Picks Send a Clear Message,” read the headline of Stuart Emmrich’s November 24, 2020, piece for Vogue.com. “The Adults Are Back in Charge.”
Ah yes, the “adults.” How are they doing? Well, within months of Biden’s inauguration, illegal immigrants seeking asylum began crossing the southern border en masse. At this writing, Biden and his secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, have presided over some 6 million unauthorized southern-border crossings and 1.7 million known “gotaways”—illegal immigrants who disappear into the interior without applying for asylum or parole.
The crisis has spread to blue states such as Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York. Denver and New York City have run out of shelters. School systems face the challenge of accommodating thousands of newcomers who speak no English. When he visited the border in January, Mayorkas referred to “our broken immigration system.” He should know. He and Biden trashed it.
Biden dismissed the border breakdown as a cyclical trend in March 2021. A few months later, another one of his “adults,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, dismissed a sudden increase in the inflation rate as “transitory.” In June, Biden said inflation was “temporary” and unrelated to the trillions of dollars in additional stimulus that he and the Democratic Congress had passed into law earlier in the year. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell, later reappointed by Biden, said in July 2021, “As these transitory supply effects abate, inflation is expected to drop.”
The inflation rate didn’t listen. It just kept increasing. It peaked at a 40-year high of 9 percent in June 2022. The cumulative increase in the price level since Biden became president is estimated to be between 16 and 18 percent. The cost of living is the most obvious reason Biden is losing to Trump in national and swing-state polls. But the president and his adults attribute their terrible polling to “bad vibes.” That’s not spin. It’s a coping mechanism.
In August 2021, the adults were caught by surprise as the Taliban rolled through Afghanistan, entered Kabul, and sent the democratically elected government into exile, trapping thousands of U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and Afghan translators and soldiers who had assisted America during its two-decade presence there. Biden, Austin, Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were forced to order U.S. troops back into Afghanistan to extract as many civilians as they could muster.
On August 26, 2021, the world stood horrified as terrorists detonated an explosive device near Kabul Airport that killed 13 U.S. servicemen. Biden reacted to the epochal tragedy with the same mix of aloofness, stubbornness, and pique to which we have become accustomed. His job approval fell below 50 percent. Where it remains.
Amazingly, the same team that brought us the border, inflation, and the Afghanistan disaster is still on the playing field. And it keeps racking up the L’s.
The Biden strategy of “deterrence by disclosure” failed to stop Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine in February 2022. Then, one year after the start of the largest land war in Europe since World War II, Biden’s national-security officials tried to cover up the existence of a Chinese near-space surveillance vehicle (aka “the spy balloon”) as it transited the continental United States. Only when random Montanans spotted the balloon in the sky was Blinken forced to cancel a planned trip to Beijing and Biden forced to shoot it down.
In an essay for the November/December 2023 issue of Foreign Affairs, Jake Sullivan wrote, “The Israeli-Palestinian situation is tense, particularly in the West Bank, but in the face of serious frictions, we have de-escalated crises in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence.” Sullivan had more to say. “Indeed,” he continued, “although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades.”
Five days after Foreign Affairs closed that issue, Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and killed 1,200 Israelis, injured thousands more, kidnapped 240 hostages, including 33 children and as many as 13 Americans, and sparked an ongoing war that threatens to engulf—if it hasn’t already done so—the Greater Middle East. The editors at Foreign Affairs quietly changed the online version of Sullivan’s piece to avoid any embarrassment over his colossal misjudgment.
The rest of us aren’t so lucky. We can’t go back in time and correct for the Biden administration’s manifold errors and evasions. We must forge ahead, toward an election that, despite everything, Biden may win. That would be quite a feat—almost as impressive as writing 1,200 words on Team Biden’s awkwardness and incompetence without mentioning the sitting vice president.
Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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