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General Fallacies

Who should you really look out for: Lloyd Austin, or the guy who hired him?


There are two controversies about Lloyd Austin, Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of defense. One is interesting but mostly abstract and intellectual; the other is more worrisome on its face but probably irrelevant.

I feel like I need to get the punditry out of the way, so let’s take the second one first. Austin downplayed the importance and danger of ISIS to President Obama, reportedly prompting the president to describe them as the “JV team” to al-Qaeda’s varsity, and thus nothing to worry about. I don’t think it’s necessary to fling a lot of words at the screen to demonstrate that this turned out to be a mistake.

It seems to me that this is an entirely appropriate thing for senators to be concerned about. I don’t think it’s disqualifying, per se, because I don’t know what Austin based that appraisal on. Moreover, being wrong about something—even something very important—doesn’t seem to disqualify anybody for anything these days. I also don’t know whether he was trying to put a gloss on a decision the commander in chief had already made. The decision to pull out of Iraq precipitously was Barack Obama’s (and if Biden is to be believed, Biden’s as well), not Austin’s. And by all accounts, Austin implemented that decision very capably.

That gets us to the second controversy. As a rule, we have decided as a country that there should be a cooling-off period between serving in uniform and serving as defense secretary. I think this is a good rule. But like many good rules, it is a bit arbitrary. Originally it was 10 years, then seven, then less—because Donald Trump wanted Gen. James Mattis to be his defense secretary, Congress issued a waiver shortening it so that Mattis would be eligible. Many Democrats agreed to the waiver because they believed Mattis would be a check on Trump’s impulses—an “adult in the room”—while all of the Republicans (minus Justin Amash) agreed to the waiver because Trump wanted it, because Mattis is extremely impressive, the fight with ISIS was intense at the time, and, I suspect, because his nickname was “Mad Dog.”

Biden wants Austin to get the same waiver. Biden says, in a piece under his name, in the The Atlantic:

Lloyd Austin retired from military service more than four years ago. The law states that an officer must have left the service at least seven years before becoming Secretary of Defense. But I hope that Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin, just as Congress did for Secretary Jim Mattis. Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly.

There’s a lot of room for the usual hypocrisy-scoring here, but that is a very boring discussion. Suffice it to say, some Democrats who opposed the waiver or said the threat of a Trump presidency was a special exception are now forced to either be consistent or give Biden what he wants, and lots of Republicans who had no problem with such a waiver must now explain why it would be a problem. They’ll probably sidestep that problem by focusing on the ISIS stuff.

I’ll cut to the chase with the punditry: Barring some scandal, Austin will almost surely get the waiver. Republicans will score some points: During the confirmation hearing, your pen will run out of ink on your bingo cards filling in the words “JV team.” But look, the Republicans will want one, maybe two human sacrifices during the confirmation process. And as a career military man, battle-tested, who would also be the first African-American secretary of defense, Austin is not the most attractive meal, politically speaking. Compared to that tough leather, Xavier Becerra and Neera Tanden might as well appear before Congress in a giant crockpot.

That’s why I think the JV team thing will ultimately be irrelevant. Biden will get his pick.

Speaking generally.

But the two controversies are related. Again, I need to know more about why Austin gave Obama bad advice about ISIS, but there’s reason to worry that Austin was telling Obama what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to hear. I don’t say this because I have any specific knowledge about Austin. Rather, it’s just an educated guess based upon four data points: 1) It was objectively bad advice, 2) It was definitely what Obama wanted to hear, 3) This is often a problem with generals, and 4) Biden has long distrusted the military.

It’s worth recalling that Biden had a lot of influence over Obama when it came to withdrawing from Afghanistan. In 2011, he visited a military base in Wardak province, where the Taliban were a major presence. According to a report in the New York Times, “Mr. Biden listened with bewilderment as an American civilian told him about plans to dig a well in a nearby village. ‘Why do they need a well?’ he asked, according to a person who was there.”

This rogue well-digging convinced Biden that the military was suffering from mission creep into nation-building. He returned home to press Obama more forcefully on withdrawing U.S. troops, despite what the generals were telling him. “In ordering the withdrawal of 30,000 troops by next summer,” the Times’ Mark Landler wrote, “Mr. Obama finally sided with Mr. Biden.” 

The truth is that the well-digging had only confirmed what Biden long believed. In 2009 Biden had already been annoying top brass for months by sending Obama unsolicited memos containing arguments against committing more troops to Afghanistan. A few months later, before a speech, Bob Woodward recounts Biden pulling Obama aside and asking him, as paraphrased in a piece by Greg Jaffe at the Post, “Would his ego allow him to concede that his war strategy wasn’t working? Would he stand up to the generals who would muster mountains of data and insist that they needed just a few more months or a few thousand more troops to make it work? Biden was sure the strategy would fail.”

It’s also worth recalling that distrust of the Pentagon is a deep tradition among Democrats, and given Biden’s long tradition of existence as a Democrat, it should be no surprise that he sponged up that distrust. No, I’m not saying he—or they—are unpatriotic, or that the Pentagon is always right. But from Truman’s firing of MacArthur all the way to Kennedy’s bitterness over the Bay of Pigs, to Bill Clinton’s battle scars with Colin Powell over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—not to mention the cultural impact of the Vietnam War on American liberalism—distrust of the brass is a major tendency among Democrats. So, would it be so ridiculous to imagine that one reason Biden likes Austin so much is that he was the rare kind of general he likes: one who agrees with him?

Now that Austin is four years out of the military, I think the fact they see eye-to-eye is less of a problem than it was when he was in uniform. Presidents should want and expect that their defense secretaries see eye-to-eye with them on major issues.

This went longer than I planned, but let’s turn to the interesting-but-abstract thing.

One of the things that fascinates me about the Founders is that they understood a great deal about human nature without the benefit of modern social and psychological science. Instead, they drew on history, which Seymour Martin Lipset liked to call “The mother of the social sciences.”

The Founders, drawing on examples from Ancient Rome to just-barely-modern Europe, understood that civilian leadership of the military was essential for a democracy. This insight was why George Washington rejected the advice from many of his contemporaries to become a military dictator.

Having a uniformed general run the Department of Defense wouldn’t, by itself, violate the principle of civilian leadership. After all, the commander in chief is still the president and he is most certainly a civilian. But it would still be very bad for the military to be run day-to-day by a uniformed member of the military. The reason, as the Founders would tell you, is that you don’t want the military to become a faction. Or to be more accurate—since the military most certainly is a faction—you don’t want its faction-ness to go to its head, literally and figuratively.

I’ve written a ton in my book and in this “news”letter about the “coalition instinct”—the tendency for groups to become, for want of a better word, tribal. The Catholic Church implemented reforms against nepotism because church leaders were becoming a kind of self-serving aristocracy. The Ottomans created the Janissaries—an elite army of slaves ripped from their families at a young age—loyal only to the sultan. Over time, they became a tribal faction unto themselves and were seen as a threat to the regime (and brutally wiped out). And don’t even get me started on Caesar or the Praetorians.

The Founders understood this history—a lot better than most of us.

One of the reasons we have a Constitution in the first place is that the Articles of Confederation didn’t provide enough resources to kick the asses of the Barbary Pirates.

There’s a lot to the case for a professional, national military. But one of its most important attributes is that it be kept a servant of the elected civilian government subject to its laws. It cannot be a wholly autonomous institution from American life, because that path eventually leads to despotism.

It’s a delicate balance. A military that is too deferential to civilian leadership can deliver despotism just as easily as one that is too dismissive of it (which, as Bing West recently advised on The Remnant) is a good reason for generals to just stay out of politics entirely. So far, we’ve been very fortunate that the military is one of the last institutions in America that still takes its mission seriously. And central to that mission is understanding that it needs to stay in its lane. That’s the real mission creep to worry about, not just some day, but every day.   

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.