Lloyd Austin: A General Crisis
Lloyd Austin’s little unauthorized jaunt is just the administrative state’s latest adventure in unfettered power.
The Roman republic was constituted by parceling out the functions of a king—specifically a चक्रवर्तिन्, cakravartin, the idealized Indo-European sacred king—among magistrates, officers, and priests. Among these was the flamen dialis, the high priest of Jupiter. He would not wear a hat to show that there was nothing above him but heaven, and he would not wear garments with knots to show that nothing could bind him but the almighty; in his office lay the very kernel of sovereignty, the taproot of the Roman state. An army in battle array was not permitted to appear before him, lest the temptation to unite the civilian and the military, to revive that dead dismembered king, prove too strong. It is from the separation of civilian and military, and the primacy of civilian, that all subsequent Western political theology arises.
It is a matter of some concern, then, that Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, is missing. Or at least, he was missing; we’ve been told that he’s back. He was missing only for three days—reportedly in a hospital ward, an intensive care unit with the maimed and desperately ill, following a surgery—for complications from cancer, the Secretary of Defense has cancer of the prostate—didn’t you know that?
The White House didn’t. The Biden administration is having a shocking attack of honesty and is admitting it doesn’t know all kinds of things. The timeline as we now know it is as follows: Sometime in the mists of the past, Austin started to receive treatment for prostate cancer, which involved a December 22 surgery. On January 1, Austin was hospitalized with a consequent urinary tract infection and was wheeled over to the ICU for recuperation. On January 4, the Pentagon notified the administration. On January 5, the Pentagon notified Congress, and Austin was discharged from the ICU the same day. On January 9, Austin notified the White House of the cancer.
The president—the civilian head of government in America, the leader of the free world—went three days without knowing the whereabouts of the official through whom he controls the military. Nor does it appear any of his staff knew. (Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, did know and reportedly assumed some of Austin’s duties—remotely from sunny Puerto Rico, where she was vacationing at the time.) The fault appears to lie entirely with Austin and the Pentagon. Austin said as much in a written statement: “I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. But this is important to say: This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Even the administration’s trustiest boosters—the Washington Post editorial board, for example—seem taken aback. While the United States is not formally at war, it is funding and supplying a conflict with a nuclear-armed power in the Ukraine–Russia war, and it is involved as a reluctant supplier-cum-referee in Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. The Houthi militants in Yemen are expanding on their latest foray into Red Sea piracy. Things are happening, things that might involve the American military. Indeed, as Austin was napping at the end of a glucose drip, the American forces that inscrutably remain in the Middle East suffered multiple drone and missile attacks; in turn, American forces bombarded militants in the environs of Baghdad.
Get daily emails in your inbox
Biden’s amen corner is learning a hard truth: The American war machine runs itself, and considers itself accountable to no civilian leader. When the president is hostile to its preferred policies, the Pentagon simply refuses to comply with his orders, and top generals call foreign governments to tell them not to worry, the president isn’t really in charge; when the president is friendlier, they evidently don’t even bother with the courtesy of letting him know what they’re up to. (One wonders: Does the Post editorial board regret its attack on Alabama’s Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s attempt to exert a modicum of civilian control over military activities?)
Cries of outrage and demands for accountability have emanated from Congress, including from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. “The Secretary of Defense serves as the linchpin through which the President commands and controls our armed forces. The DoD’s failure to inform the White House, Congress, and the American People of Secretary Austin’s incapacitation reflects the lack of leadership, competency, and transparency throughout the entire Biden administration,” Gaetz said in a January 8 press release calling for an Armed Services Committee hearing about the episode.
Gaetz is right; this situation is a problem. Who is in charge of this democratic republic, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be the democratically elected representatives. The arrogance of the American defense establishment is the only match for the arrogance of the federal law enforcement apparatus; they are different symptoms of the same fever. The cluster of pressing issues facing the country today—border protection, crime, national security, foreign policy, trade, even abortion—arise basically from a crisis of sovereignty. Is the duly elected government of the American nation in charge, or is someone or something else? We know what the answer should be; may our politicians have the will to act on it.