By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON — There is always a lot on the plate of a secretary of defense. More so when you take office after essentially three years of upheaval in Pentagon leadership, an infusion of a politically-charged posse into operations, and a cleaving along racial, sexual, and insurrectionist lines that threaten to explode.
Welcome to the world of the 28th secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin.
Like many who took the oath of office, Austin promised to defend America from enemies coming from abroad and from within. He has NATO, Quad Four, and other allies to help with the former; right now, he is seemingly on his own in the latter battles.
Pentagon doctrine has long called for the military to be able to fight two large-scale conflicts in far different parts of the world. Austin’s challenge is to fight a four-front war within the ranks, on the battlefields of sexual harassment, racism, white extremism, and a growing Fifth Column within the military.
Simultaneously, he has to work at blotting out the stains left from the erratic years of the Trump administration and the chaos it gushed through the more than 17 miles of Pentagon hallways.
That does not even take into the discussion the longtime battle in the Pentagon between the uniformed leadership and the civilian decision-makers. – one which then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted on Sept. 10, 2001.
“The adversary’s closer to home. It’s the Pentagon bureaucracy. Not the people, but the processes. Not the civilians, but the systems. Not the men and women in uniform, but the uniformity of thought and action that we too often impose on them,” Rumsfeld said then.
His plan to attack that bureaucracy was shattered by the 9-11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars are now winding down and now Austin’s plate is — for this moment — domestic and internal.
“He is in a unique, challenging situation, even for a secretary of defense,” Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, said in an interview. “The job is almost impossible to do under the best of circumstances. He is really up against it.”
Like the explorer Vasco de Gama, Austin must calibrate new routes to reap the treasures of future success in addressing the challenges of the past. He has moved quickly to remove the Trump tarnish from the Pentagon, the late-term actions that left much of the Pentagon structure resembling something akin to the farm offered by Mr. Haney in Green Acres.
On his first day in the job, Austin addressed “the scourge of sexual assault” in a memo requesting senior military leadership submit a summary of sexual assault and harassment prevention measures within two weeks. That deadline is approaching. Then the question here — as in other battlefronts — is what will the former general do to push onetime peers in the new directions and how hard any push will be.
“It is an important thing as to how this plays out,” Mark Cancian, the senior adviser, International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview, in regards to the domestic and social issues. “These (social issues) have always been in the background but (the January 6 insurrection) brought it way to the front.”
Based on its own reports, the military has consistently failed to address the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the ranks year after year after year. While the military has a slightly higher African-American representation than national averages that generally applies only in the lower ranks and racial disparity remains.
Likewise ignored is how the military seems to be a farm team for neo-nazi, supremacist, and hate groups that are growing as quickly as the hydrilla in the Potomac River. Militia movements and hate groups have a long history of trying to serve or to recruit veterans to gain skills and legitimacy.
The military has no idea of how many are in the ranks, even as growing anecdotal evidence shows the problem is significant. Austin took an important step early on in announcing a “stand down” over the next 60 days for units to discuss extremism in the military.
Hovering above the domestic battles he must wage is one more — how he ensures he is a “civilian” leader and not a former general out of uniform. Because Trump preferred dealing more with the uniformed leaders at the Pentagon, many now say the critical civilian-military balance has swung deeply in favor of the military.
Austin was granted a waiver to get the job, not being out of the military for the required seven years. The authors of a 2018 congressionally-mandated review of the National Defense Strategy — including Kathleen Hicks, now Austin’s deputy — were so concerned that they highlighted “a troubling sense that civilian voices were relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy, undermining the concept of civilian control.”
Or as Rumsfeld said in 2001, “We know the adversary. We know the threat. And with the same firmness of purpose that any effort against a determined adversary demands, we must get at it and stay at it.”
He noted that “I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it. We need to save it from itself.”
Cancian said Austin would very much like to have three or four months to get his domestic initiatives going without any world crisis interfering.
“That is perfectly sensible but probably the Taliban will not give him that kind of time,” Cancian said.
“There is going to be a crisis of some sort, there always is. Hopefully, it is some relatively minor like Myanmar, he said. “Now if the Chinese ram a U.S. naval vessel in the South China Sea, the Russians do something untoward, the Iranians are assisting somebody… you can imagine things that happen that they would have to react to and force their hand on major policy questions.”