Did Lloyd Austin’s Unannounced Absence Jeopardize Military Readiness?
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spent days in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Walter Reed Medical Center, and nobody knew. “The President has full trust and confidence in Secretary Austin,” a spokesman said Monday. But the Biden administration’s efforts to defend Austin contradict the logic of its recent attacks on Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) regarding his hold on military promotions over the Pentagon’s illegal policy to use taxpayer dollars for abortion-related travel.
Here’s what happened, according to details released Sunday by the Pentagon. Austin, age 70, had a scheduled medical procedure on December 22 and went home a day later. However, due to unspecified complications, he returned to the hospital on January 1 for severe pain, at which point he was admitted to the ICU. Austin remained in the ICU until January 4, and as of Monday he remained in the hospital, although he had resumed at least some of his duties.
A health emergency could happen to anyone. No one is blaming Austin for having to be in the hospital for several days. No one is even suggesting that his extended stay should put his job in jeopardy. Far from it, we pray that Austin has a full and speedy recovery.
But here’s the problem: the relevant top officials didn’t know Austin was in the hospital for days. On January 2, some of Austin’s duties were transferred to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, then vacationing in Puerto Rico, but she wasn’t told the reason. Not until Thursday, January 4, did Hicks, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and President Joe Biden himself learn that Austin had been in the hospital since Monday.
Apparently, part of the communications breakdown was that Austin’s chief-of-staff Kelly Magsamen was “unable to make notifications” before January 4, because she was out sick with the flu. But one would expect the DOD secretary — second to the president in the military’s chain of command — to have some redundancy in his communications structure. Was there no deputy chief of staff to fill in or someone at Walter Reed to communicate his status with the Pentagon?
National Review’s Jim Geraghty pointed out that the days when Austin was secretly in the hospital ICU were “not exactly a quiet stretch for the U.S. military.” Per his list:
- On December 31, U.S. Navy helicopters exchanged fire with Houthi militants in the Red Sea, sinking three small boats.
- On January 2, the U.S. reached an agreement with Qatar to renew a 10-year lease on America’s largest military base in the Middle East.
- On January 3, two explosions, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, killed nearly 100 people at a funeral for Iran terror chief Qassem Soleimani — who was killed in a U.S. strike.
- On January 4, U.S. forces killed the leader of another Iran-backed terrorist militia in Iraq, in a self-defense strike.
- On January 4, the Houthis launched an unmanned boat filled with explosives at U.S. Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
For the last four incidents, Secretary Austin was in the ICU and therefore presumably was not involved in the decisions.
“What is amazing is that nobody knew it. Nobody knew it,” said Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, executive vice president at Family Research Council on “Washington Watch.”
“I have never seen, in my 36.5 years in the military, a worse case of malfeasance and lack of judgment. I can’t explain it,” said Boykin. “There should have been a message. … The notice should have gone out to everyone involved, and they would have known that their responsibilities will be changing while he is in the hospital.”
“This is unacceptable for someone who’s in the chain of command,” agreed Rep. Mark Alford (R-Mo.) on “Washington Watch.” “This is inexcusable. We have an inept administration. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is part of that.” Even an official who served in the Obama administration called on Austin, his chief of staff, and “other officials” to resign.
In response, the Biden administration has insisted that Austin’s behavior was excusable.
The Biden administration sang a much different tune regarding Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). Tuberville placed a hold on Senate confirmation of senior military promotions — which prevented the Senate from confirming blocks of promotions without a vote through “unanimous consent” — in protest of the Pentagon’s unilateral decision to use taxpayer funds for abortion-related travel expenses. Biden claimed Tuberville’s stand was “undermining military readiness.”
For Biden’s argument to make sense, each of the following claims must be true:
- Senator Tuberville was blocking military promotions over the DOD abortion policy.
- As a result of that hold, senior military leadership positions were vacant.
- When senior military leadership positions are vacant, the military is deprived of top-level leadership.
- The absence of top-leadership harms military readiness.
This is roughly the argument Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made in a floor speech on October 31 of last year.
There’s quite a bit to dispute about this syllogism — more on that in a moment — but for now, the point is that this is the argument prominent Democrats were making less than three months ago. Yet the fourth claim, “the absence of top-leadership harms military readiness,” also applies to Austin’s unannounced absence. Did his absence harm military readiness? If the argument Schumer and Biden were making against Senator Tuberville was correct, then the answer must be, “yes, Austin’s absence did hurt military readiness.” Yet the Biden administration is currently circling the wagons around Austin, which would indicate they really don’t believe this to be true.
In fact, the entire syllogism was disputable. The Biden administration tried to infer from the argument that the only way to restore military readiness was for Tuberville to drop his hold on promotions. But Claim 1 indicates another path forward, one which the Biden administration refused to consider: the military could end the illegal abortion policy that provoked the hold in the first place.
Regarding Claim 2, Tuberville forced Schumer to tacitly admit this claim wasn’t true by demonstrating that nominees for promotion — especially for senior posts — could still be voted on individually, despite the hold. As to Claim 3, the responsibilities of a vacant position can be handled by the next-in-command, just as Hicks assumed some of Austin’s duties. On Claim 4, apparently the military can defend itself from attack, strike and kill terror chiefs, and renew base leases — all without anyone knowing its top official is in the hospital.
“These people just spent months lecturing me about acting officials, these promotions I’ve been holding for abortion,” remarked Tuberville. “They’ve been telling me, ‘Senator Tuberville’s holding back on military readiness,’ and we have an AWOL Secretary of Defense that doesn’t tell anybody.”
Many words have been written about the “two-tiered system of justice” on display in the Biden administration. This appears to be a case of a “two-tiered system of logic,” in which some claims can be either true or false, depending on whether the administration or its opponents stand to benefit. That’s not how logic works, and it’s not how the military or the government is supposed to work either.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.