Jan 09, 2024

The Lloyd Austin incident sheds harsh light on Biden’s team, CNN.com

Updated 5:51 PM EST, Mon January 8, 2024 Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN. CNN — In the midst of an international crisis involving the US military, the top civilian leader of the Pentagon was hospitalized for days without the commander in chief knowing his whereabouts. The absence of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is a surprising development that puts a harsh light on President Joe Biden’s national security team. And the odd thing is that there may be very little Biden can do about it, practically speaking. For the past week, Austin has been at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside of Washington DC, where he was admitted on Monday, January 1, after he experienced “severe pain” following an elective surgery on December 22. For at least part of his time in the hospital, Austin was in the intensive care unit. The White House wasn’t informed until Thursday of Austin’s condition, nor were senior Pentagon officials like Austin’s number two at the Pentagon, Kathleen Hicks. Typically, the US Secretary of Defense is a savvy politician like former Sen. William Cohen, who served under former President Bill Clinton or former Rep. Leon Panetta, who served under former President Barack Obama, or a longtime Washington player like Robert Gates, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush but also served under Obama. Despite his decades of military experience, Austin is neither a politician nor a longtime DC insider, and instead is known to be an introvert who only gives public speeches and interviews relatively infrequently. Austin’s introversion and seeming lack of Washington savvy may help explain why he and his team didn’t give senior US national security officials a heads-up about his condition. The Pentagon has also offered up the rationale that Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, was out with flu when the Secretary of Defense was first hospitalized, but the Pentagon is the world’s largest employer with 2.86 million employees, so the notion that relaying Austin’s condition hinged on only one of them is confounding. Everyone is entitled to keep their own medical information to themselves or to select people, but that doesn’t preclude telling others that you are out of commission for a few days, especially when you are the US secretary of defense. That role, among other things, puts you in the room for decisions involving nuclear weapons, although the president has the sole authority to order the launch of those weapons. Biden tapped Austin to be secretary of defense in part because of their previous experience together. When Biden was vice president and was running the Iraq portfolio for the Obama administration, Austin was the top general who presided over the US withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011. Austin also served as Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, where he helped lead the fight against ISIS in Iraq from 2014 during the Obama administration. Yet, Austin does not seem to be part of Biden’s true national security inner circle, which includes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, both of whom have worked with Biden very closely for many years. This may help explain why no one at the White House noticed that Austin was gone, or why, perhaps, they simply may have assumed he was on vacation. Austin was hospitalized on January 1 — a federal holiday. But that is not much of a defense, since the Situation Room at the White House operates 24/7, and a simple call or email to the Situation Room staff from anyone on Austin’s team should have been enough to inform the rest of the cabinet and their key deputies what was going on with Austin. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, December 18. Defense secretary faces intense scrutiny over hospital stay that was not disclosed to key officials There has rarely been a more fraught time during the Biden administration for the US secretary of defense to be out of commission than now. Consider that on Thursday, a US drone strike killed the leader of an Iranian-based militia in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. The Baghdad strike was authorized before Austin was admitted to hospital. Iranian-backed militias have launched more than 100 attacks against US troops in Syria and Iraq since Hamas attacked Israel three months ago. The strike in Baghdad was a calculated risk by the Biden administration, especially since there are growing calls in Iraq, including from the Iraqi prime minister on Friday, to expel the 2,500 US troops that remain in the country on a mission to counter ISIS. On Wednesday, the US and a dozen other allied nations warned the Houthis, an Iranian-backed militia that controls much of Yemen, that they must stop their attacks on commercial shipping in the strategic shipping lanes of the Red Sea or face unspecified consequences, which presumably would involve US military action against Houthi targets. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Israel seem to be inching ever closer to an all-out war. The Middle East is on fire, and one of America’s chief firefighters was AWOL. Over the weekend, Austin released a statement saying he “could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.” That hardly seems the point since Austin and his team did a terrible job keeping the president and other senior national security officials informed of his condition, which went unmentioned in Austin’s apologia. So, what, if anything, can Biden do? Probably not much. A public reprimand of Austin by Biden would also only serve to reinforce the view held by Republican critics that the Biden team isn’t especially competent. If Biden fired Austin, he would only bring more attention to the issue, and in this political environment, finding another candidate for the position and getting them confirmed by the US Senate would be a very heavy lift.