It’s the Small Things

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Axios sent out an email yesterday headlined “Biden’s Stubborn Loyalty.” I went back to it this afternoon and realized I’d remembered it having a more negative spin than it really did. That headline above is followed by “1 Big Thing: Biden’s Teflon Cabinet.” The gist is that Biden sticks by his people. Got a criticism of one of his people? Who cares? Biden doesn’t want to hear it. What spurred this write-up is the controversy about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Will Biden fire Austin? Will he resign? No, says the White House. Indeed, Biden won’t let him resign. Done and done.

Axios writes this: “Politico reports Biden would not accept a resignation from Austin even if he offered, and chatter from the pundit class is likely to reflexively harden the president’s view.”

I like this attitude.

What first made the headlines with Secretary Austin’s surgery and return to the hospital was that reporters weren’t notified for four days. The much bigger deal is that, if I’m understanding the timeline, the White House and top Pentagon officials weren’t notified for either two or three days.

Here’s the timeline as I understand it. On December 22nd, Austin was hospitalized to undergo surgery for what we now know was prostate cancer. That all went by the books in terms of the relevant people being notified. But on January 1st Austin had some kind of complications causing severe pain. He was taken to the ICU at Walter Reed. The next morning (January 2nd) the chairman of the Joint Chief’s staff was notified and Austin’s powers were turned over to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks. But it wasn’t until the 4th that President Biden and Hicks herself was notified. The following day, January 5th, the service secretaries, Congress and the public was notified.

This isn’t a trivial matter. The secretary of defense has a specific and important role in the military chain of command. Under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 the line goes like this: The president issues orders to the secretary of defense and the secretary issues orders directly to the combatant commanders. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the president’s statutory military advisor. But the orders don’t go through him. The service secretaries — secretary of the army, secretary of the navy — aren’t in the line at all. They just run the departments.

The point is the secretary of defense isn’t just nice to have around. He’s central to the highest-level command structure of the U.S. military. You don’t want to have a serious military crisis and not know where he is. He’s not as important as the president, obviously, but it’s really important everyone knows where the secretary is or who is acting in his place.

So, big goof. But a firing offense? Not really. I’m sure it won’t happen again. And it’s the president’s call. It’s refreshing to see a president or any high level official say in so many words, this is okay and I really don’t care what the Post editorial board or any yahoo in Congress has to say about it.

I also think that the withdrawal from Afghanistan remains one of Biden’s shining moments even though I know absolutely no one agrees with me.

The United States remained in Afghanistan for ten years after anyone had any good explanation for why we were there. Obama wanted to leave. But he got rolled by the Pentagon. Biden knew that the only way to really leave was to leave. Someone had to bite the bullet. He bit that bullet and paid a big price and didn’t look back.

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