Look, we’re all very happy that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is on the mend. And it’s very nice that President Biden is ready to put this whole episode behind him.
But it’s going to stay right behind him, trailing him like a shadow.
To recap: On December 22, Austin underwent what the Pentagon says was an “elective” medical procedure, and was home from Walter Reed Hospital the next day. On January 1, he began experiencing severe pain and was checked into Walter Reed’s ICU. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks was apparently on vacation in Puerto Rico when she was informed that if a defense secretary’s signature was needed during this time, it would be hers. For three days, the president of the United States was kept in the dark, as were senior Pentagon officials and the National Security Council. It was also during one of those days when a U.S. strike in Iraq killed an Iranian militia leader involved in recent attacks on U.S. forces in the region.
The disappearance of a wartime secretary of defense after having elective surgery is not a regular occurrence. The manner in which it was handled was a flamboyant breach of protocol and humiliating to the president.
Despite the unprecedented nature of the incident, the proper course of action isn’t exactly a mystery: Lloyd Austin, four-star general, member of the Thomasville-Thomas County Sports Hall of Fame, and all-around nice guy, cannot remain the United States secretary of defense.
Yet, amazingly enough, it appears he will anyway. According to Politico, “the president would not accept a resignation if Austin were to offer one.” That is ridiculous.
Let’s stipulate: loyalty is good, Austin didn’t mean to show the president such public disrespect, no disaster befell the republic.
As the saying goes, the road to Penn Station is paved with good intentions. The truth is, we shouldn’t even still be discussing this—Biden should have fired Austin immediately. In fact, Biden shouldn’t have had to do so, because Austin should have resigned. He meant no harm, but a retired four-star general in charge of military affairs cannot display such contempt for procedures and for the chain of command without sending a signal that discipline is unnecessary for everyone else, too.
More important, the president risks torching his own credibility without saving Austin’s. The defense secretary has been a visible part of the Biden administration’s diplomatic management of a crucial foreign-policy challenge: keeping the scorpion of the Gaza war in its bottle. Austin’s credibility is shot now—not because he flaked on the president but because the president didn’t even know he’d been flaked on.
Does Lloyd Austin speak for the president? How about: Does Lloyd Austin speak to the president? And while it’s true that Austin’s disappearing act didn’t seem to have any consequences for American foreign policy, that… sounds like an argument against taking Austin seriously from this point onward. Leaving Austin in place risks allowing that credibility gap to extend to the rest of the Department of Defense. Austin should have enough presence of mind to protect the Pentagon from his own poor judgment.
And what about Biden himself? Ghosting the president of the United States has to have consequences. As the commander in chief, Biden’s credibility is also America’s.
The criticisms that stick to politicians are the ones that confirm existing narratives. Biden is struggling to keep his administration, let alone his party, in line behind him. He has endured repeated calls from other Democrats for him to bow out of the 2024 race despite being the incumbent president. And while Austin was off the grid last week, the president was sent an anonymous open letter from campaign staff objecting to his handling of the conflict in the Middle East. Five hundred administration officials (or so they claim) did the same in November. And last month Biden’s own staffers held a masked candlelight vigil in front of the White House to protest his support for Israel.
Biden is running for reelection this year likely against Donald Trump. And while Trump obviously took the “you’re fired” catchphrase to ridiculous places, Biden is inviting his opponent to attack him as a doormat. And Trump can do that effectively.
Biden is piling unforced error upon unforced error. And these are the types of mistakes that’ll cost him.