There Are No Adults Left
The SECDEF hospital fiasco is a symptom of a larger problem for the national security community
You don’t know better and the adults aren’t in charge. As the scandal surrounding the Secretary of Defense’s failure to communicate and OSD’s failure to manage his absence unravels, it’s time to write something I’ve been meaning to write for months. I first had the idea to comment on what I, and others, have noticed about the upper ranks of the national security community after the Replicator debacle a few months ago. You might remember that from when DSD Hicks claimed the Pentagon could field a new robot army without spending an extra dime and no one at OSD thought “what the fuck?” But I’ve already penned my thoughts on Replicator. Rather, it’s becoming clear that the glimpses of failure we’ve seen in the last few years are not simply the result of singular management failures, politics, or individual personalities. It would be easy to write off SECDEF’s decision to not inform the chain of command of his time in the ICU, his staff’s failure to share those details and apparently outright lie to everyone from senior DoD leaders to the National Security Council, as a simple one-off screwup that got out of control. But that’s not what happened. This wasn’t a one-off screwup. It’s a culture problem, and while each SECDEF has created their own flavor of culture, it’s not unique to a particular administration. This is a manifestation of years, if not decades, of zero accountability. The national security community has been stumbling along after years of leadership failures, hyper-politicization, and smug overconfidence across administrations and crises. This is simply the most comical (if infuriating) and latest installment of a decaying national security community. How do you not notice that SECDEF was taken by ambulance to Walter Reed or why do you feel inclined to lie about where he was? What if there had been a nuclear crisis? The SECDEF was in the ICU and Deputy SECDEF in Puerto Rico on vacation, and none of it was communicated outside of the inner circle of the E Ring? In a crisis, minutes matter, but none of that mattered to SECDEF and his team. That’s inexcusable. And beyond the “what if” of a nuclear crisis, it’s a slap in the face to the professionalism of the community writ large. Leadership problems have become boulders to throw upon the backs of regular government employees when leadership can’t be bothered to literally phone it in.
These kinds of scandals don’t manifest overnight. A close-knit team of professionals doesn’t feel comfortable ignoring protocol, whether a legal requirement or not, all of a sudden. It takes time for a culture like this to develop. It takes time for a cultural acceptance, in a bureaucracy so rigid as the Pentagon, to manifest to where the failure to notify the chain of command can be excused by a common cold (or whatever his CoS claims to have had to not notify POTUS). As a community, we love to mock television shows and movies for making the national security community look ridiculous, and yet here we are. Nowhere else in the world could you get away with this level of incompetence, at this scale, on this stage. WOTR founder Ryan Evans asked on Twitter/X if any commander would ever go days without reporting to their CO…it would never happen, you’d be fired without question. And few would even dare to be that irresponsible when much less is on the line. I once chased down a runaway private in downtown Seoul to ensure accountability of personnel (in skinny jeans, no less), it’s actually not that hard to ensure continuity of government.
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It’s not Red vs Blue
Now that the weekend is over and the pundits return to work, plenty will claim partisanship in my and others’ critiques of SECDEF and company. But I think my writing speaks for itself. I’ve been one of the more supportive China hawks of the administration, and far more than fair when they didn’t live up to the task. Plenty of folks will write in the coming days and weeks on the political perspectives of who was where, who knew what, and who in the administration is to blame for this. That is not what I am here to do, because I believe this to be scandal to be a symptom of a larger decay within the national security community. Let me explain.
Many critiques of the national security community often come from those who are jaded by the system or edgy outsiders who like to call it “the blob” or whatever. Contrary to popular belief, the national security community is not made up of shadowy figures bent on world domination. Many are just regular folks. Regular folks who have spent decades honing skills and policies and procedures meant to prevent catastrophe through error and to ensure victory in the absence of any single critical figure. We are supposed to have built a system that can handle that most painful of stress tests with redundancies upon redundancies to ensure success in the absence of orders. My concern is not one of political bent or grinding axe. I am genuinely fearful that we have collectively broken ourselves so bad, and twisted the leadership culture and path to it, that we are on the path to failing the American people in the next great crisis. Any sports coach will tell you that if you can’t do the basics, you won’t win. Well, in failing to properly carry out protocol around SECDEF’s hospitalization we have failed the basics exam. We built up the people who enabled this, we have a problem and we got lucky. This time.
Problem #1 Bipartisan hyper-partisanship
You can go back several administrations and identify cultural problems within the national security community. Some would say it started with Iraq 2003. Some would say COIN. Some would say it was the Obama second-term crowd. I think they all contributed. But the Trump administration broke the levies holding back the politics that lingered in the natsec community. The toxicity and incompetence, even with a couple stars, spread and did permanent damage both to reputation and atmosphere throughout the executive branch. It made it a lot harder to be a hawk that “looked the other way” on domestic issues. It made it a lot harder to “just do your job.” We saw that with Trump’s horrid speech at Langley in front of the Wall of Honor, and it only got worse from there. The one unifying effort here was the Global War on Terror, which was winding down and many of the original veterans were looking to retirement. All the while, China hawks were trying to pivot an entire nation to the Pacific under a White House that couldn’t focus on single issue for more than five seconds. Some good things happened, and a lot of bad things happened. I don’t need to repeat them, but the unsaid bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and comradery broke. We broke. We tried to heal it as we looked for a bipartisan consensus on China, but as I wrote a few months ago, that too broke. Hyper-partisanship is simply too strong right now to keep us together. Many are worn out or jaded from GWOT and the fall of Kabul. Those remaining are either new, opportunists, or the few who are still toughing it out because they’re damn good and it would all fall apart without them. That shouldn’t be how our system works. In an era of entrenched hyper-partisan politics, loyalty tests, and domestic political resumes for foreign policy jobs, what you end up with is political loyalists, who themselves have probably been radicalized in either direction by the events of Jan 6 and the prior admin. The SECDEF case proves that when stuff starts to break down, we can’t pass the stress test anymore because we don’t have the right people making calls. When qualifications are built on loyalty rather than capability, everything breaks. The fact that the SECDEF ended up in an ambulance and the ICU and his deputy stayed on the beaches of Puerto Rico for a week is inexcusable. There’s a dozen low-viz ways DSD could’ve made it back to DC without disrupting secure comms or chain of command. No one person failed here, it was systemic. And the broken institutions we’ve been trying to mend aren’t working the way they should be as a result.
Problem # 2 No Sense of Urgency
The bad guys don’t work 9 to 5. We don’t either. I’m all for work-life balance, but there’s the right way and wrong way to do it. This administration, from Ukraine to Taiwan, has struggled with a consistent sense of urgency. I suspect that’s in part a reaction to the chaos and overreach of the prior administrations, but they’ve overcorrected. If you work for SECDEF and he ends up in the hospital, you tell everybody and make sure every contingency is in place. You fly back from vacation, you inform your counterparts, subordinates, and superiors, and you ensure everything can still function as it should. If you’re too sick to do all that, you call everyone from your assistant to your dumbest intern until you find someone that can. I don’t care that SECDEF didn’t tell the public (even if it was weird), I care that no one important was told with any sort of plan! And that people from subordinates to the WH were purposely misled for reasons that remain unclear. That’s inexcusable. The world’s on fire with multiple wars and it can get a lot worse…why are we acting like it’s 1992? The smug overconfidence that infects OSD simply because it’s not the cluster that was the last team is hardly warranted. The standard for policy success cannot and should not be “Well, we didn’t burn it all down.”
Problem #3 Management, Not Leadership
I’ve spent a fair amount of time swinging at the current OSD leadership (for good reason) but let me now state why I think this is systemic: we’ve become managers, not leaders. Handwaving the failures of GWOT, projecting cockiness towards the PRC and Russia, hobbled by Congressional budgets and reporting requirements, we’ve become the proverbial game manager. Ask any coach, game managers might bring in crowds but they don’t win championships. Much like my beloved but incredibly frustrating Eagles, the DoD and natsec community has become more focused on “not losing” than actually winning. The SECDEF fiasco is emblematic of this. Any organization that thought that’s acceptable clearly has a bad read of the world. Of course, this particular OSD isn’t unique. There hasn’t been much accountability or real, consistent leadership for some time. No one really got dragged for the GWOT failures, Iraq, or countless acquisitions screwups. The Trump administration was riddled with many more visible examples of mismanagement. Ask any member of OSD which admin they like more, especially if they were on the wrong end of Mattis’ toxic front office personnel. Right now, I’m sure there’s folks reading this who are probably furious that I’m calling them out without discrimination. I’m not. I’m asking you to look to your left and right, to your manager and subordinate, and take a deeper look at the culture being promoted. I’m asking those at my alma mater at Georgetown and elsewhere to consider what you’re telling your students matters in a national security leader. I’m asking those at think tanks to consider why they remain silent on issues so they can sit in the DASD bullpen. It’s all of us. We need to fix ourselves. Because clearly we’re fucking it up pretty damn bad. We’re gonna get a bunch of somebodies killed if we want to keep aspiring to be game managers.
For a weekend where many of us started off laughing at reports of PLA corruption, we sure managed to show them up in incompetence real quick. We keep getting lucky, and right now our partners are the ones paying most of the price. But sooner rather than later, we’re going to pay for our arrogance, our promotion of incompetence, in our own blood. And then we’ll look back at moments like this and wonder how we didn’t see the whole problem sooner. Probably in front of a Congressional hearing.
I don’t have much else to say right now. The pundits can argue about everything else. We have to require a higher standard than “it didn’t all burn down” and we have to be better at cultivating the right people and culture that invites better leaders than those who think hiding a SECDEF’s ICU visit amidst two global crises from the White House is the right thing to do. Good thing no one ever wrote up a scenario where a war starts up as we lose command and control between SECDEF and POTUS (oh wait, I did.)
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