The Buck Stops Where?

‘Twas a month after Christmas
And all through D.C.,
Journos wondered where Defense Secretary Austin could be.
President Joe Biden was nestled all snug in his bed.
With nary an idea his Pentagon lacked its constitutional head.

All right, patient reader, enough Clement Clarke Moore emulation. (Or is Henry Livingston Jr.?)

America started the new year wholly defenseless. That’s right: the world’s strongest, brawniest, star-spangliest, most winningest empire (ignore the entire MidEast region), began 2024 on its back. Caught unawares. Control room unoccupied. Nobody at the helm. Zero hands on the wheel. Our great big Boeing-patented joystick of death ungrasped.

Heaven forbid the homeland was attacked during those brief, rudderless days. Or two major wars weren’t busy raging overseas, both of which we have hefty material investment in. Or our Navy wasn’t being actively thwarted in its commerce-clearing mission by a ragtag band of subversives fiddling with remote-controlled bombs. Or our armed forces weren’t consistently missing recruitment marks, bleeding ranks while Uncle Sam is getting his shins bruised by vying powers.

Thanks be to God nothing like that was going on while the Pentagon’s plushest office sat idle.

Unbeknownst to the president, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went under the knife on New Year’s Day due to complications from a then-unexplained “elective medical procedure.” The buck passed to deputy secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was, given the yuletide idyll season, holidaying in Puerto Rico. President Biden and other senior White House personnel weren’t reportedly aware of Austin’s absence until four days later.

Our intrepid media, naturally, was on the case, tracking down the whereabouts of the missing general. Just kidding! Most journalists were busy lapping up Jonathan Karl’s third Trump tract in three years. Or covering the pareidolia presidential primary in New Hampshire. Or doing the only thing the press is good at anymore: trading each other’s takes on Twitter.

Some poor intern in the bowels of the Pentagon had to issue a statement clarifying the reason for Gen. Austin’s AWOL: complications resulting from prostate cancer treatment. Of course, we’ve been reassured everything is OK, that the Defense Secretary is convalescing well, and nothing, we repeat, nothing is amiss at all. STAY CALM, AMERICA IS IN SAFE HANDS, say the martial mandarins who spent the better part of this century losing a war to cousin-kissing goatherds in Tora Bora.

Some swamp scribblers were, shock of all shocks, disconcerted, though their criticism was tempered in tone—not the all-caps squeal deployed daily under Trump. “Kind of amazing, no, that the secretary of defense was hospitalized twice—once for surgery, once for multiple days—without the White House knowing?” asked CIA Circular Washington Post reporter Josh Dawsey. New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser used the same adjective to describe the situation before we learned of the cancer diagnosis—leading your correspondent to assume “amazing” was journo Slack approved. Warmongering mole Bill Kristol found Austin’s absence “unacceptable.” Can’t have the empire missing its shot caller, can we?

*Obnoxious throat clear.* ASHKTUALLY, it turns out we can. The deadliest, most diffused military on earth can have its figurehead out of commission and trundle along just fine. Gen. Austin is back in command from his hospital bed and just authorized airstrikes on Houthi intrigants taking potshots at American vessels in the Red Sea. And were he in a coma? Then the Deputy Secretary would rubber-stamp the same bombardment. And if she were sozzled on a beach somewhere? Then on down the line goes a bunch of rainbow-ribboned stiffs DocuSigning approvals for aerial incineration.

Politics is, as Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited, about personalities. But the modern state is so massive, so unwieldy, and so endlessly codified that it no longer requires one person, or even a few persons, to keep it humming. It is, as N.S. Lyons memorably described it, “deliberately complex, elevated, distant, and almost wholly inscrutable to the native.”

Why we’ve let the U.S. government balloon into a multi-million-man enterprise unconquerable by basic accounting practices is twofold. First, it’s more efficient—not at delivering results (Iraqi democracy, anyone?) but at not turning off. Even Sauron had to blink once and a while. The Potomac all-seeing-eye really never closes. Second, in erecting the always-on state, our political class has adopted kratophobia—the fear of taking responsibility for ruling. It’s always the same story: Congress hands over authority to the Executive Branch, unnamed Executive Branch officials act in the dark, mistakes are covered up, nobody is fired. Oh, and the Supreme Court says Congress must pass legislation to rectify screwups, which never happens.

That’s why we learn on a random Thursday evening in January of a bedbound SecDef giving the thumbs-up to a congressionally unauthorized ballistic attack, all as the President is snoozing.

Welcome to 2024.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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