The disappearance of defense secretary Lloyd Austin for a few days without notifying the White House, or even the second in command at the Pentagon, is more than a one- or two-day story.
It’s a much larger problem. It’s a problem politically for the White House, an opportunity for Republicans, a dilemma for congressional Democrats and a problem for the most powerful military in the world. And, of course, it’s a major problem for Secretary Austin’s future in the position.
Let’s start with the problem for the military. It is absolutely essential that the military have a clear chain of command that is clearly specified and operational at all times. Within the military, that chain of command goes up to the senior-most officer in each service branch. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is above them in the military hierarchy.
Because the US military operates in a democracy, where political control is essential for major decisions, the top military officials are beneath a civilian secretary for each branch. All of them, plus the chairman of the joint chiefs, are beneath the civilian secretary of defense, who is appointed by the president, subject to Senate approval, and is supervised by the president himself. The civilian secretaries of each branch are also nominees that must be approved by the Senate. That, then, is a clear chain of command under civilian control.
When the secretary of defense goes AWOL, that chain of command is severed. The severance appeared to be even more severe because the second in command to Secretary Austin was herself on vacation and not informed of his being out of the chain because he was in the intensive care unit.
The failure to inform the White House meant that democratic political oversight was also in confusion at a time when North Korea is firing missiles at contested areas to its south, the war in the Middle East might well spread beyond Gaza and intermittent attacks on northern Israel and shipping in the Red Sea — and the southern border remains wide open to the intrusion of terrorist groups and spies from other countries.
All this mess is an obvious political disaster for a White House, which can ill afford the loss of any more public confidence. Democrats themselves know it and are complaining. They will complain even more when the Republicans tee off on such an obvious screw-up.
Expect hearings to be called quickly in the House, where Republicans are in control. It will be interesting to see whether the Democratic-controlled Senate wants to ask questions, which are their responsibility, or stay silent in hopes of protecting a vulnerable administration.
It’s hard to see how Secretary Austin’s position is tenable after this egregious mistake. I expect he’ll be getting his résumé ready and looking to a future as a highly paid consultant in the defense industry. If things go as normal in Washington, he won’t be fired; he will be permitted to submit his resignation “for the good of the country in these perilous times.“
The loss of another high-ranking African American in a position of great responsibility may pose an additional problem for a Democratic administration that depends upon the black vote for every election. Of course, the troubles Secretary Austin is in have nothing to do with race. But that won’t stop the racial issues from emerging around his debacle.
Secretary Austin had a distinguished career as a uniformed soldier, and then as a civilian official. It’s sad to see it ending with such an unforced error. But leaving the White House in the dark, and the chain of military command unclear, are the kind of grave errors that end careers.