January 8, 2024 - 10:00am

If one were seeking an illustration of growing divisions within America’s government, one need only look to the hospitalisation of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Admitted on 1 January for what the Pentagon later described as “complications following a recent elective medical procedure”, US media reported that he was in intensive care. However, despite the gravity of the situation, officials told Politico that neither the President nor National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was informed until 4 January. 

This may seem bizarrely secretive on Austin’s part, but actually reflects a wider fracturing within the American high command. Such fissures have been especially apparent regarding the Ukraine war. Assessing the factors that led to Kyiv’s stalled counteroffensive, the Washington Post found there had been vastly different expectations and assessments within the US administration. Last February, as departments tried to find a consensus on what joint advice to give Joe Biden, the Pentagon’s optimism stood in stark contrast to the CIA’s warnings of vast Russian defences and prediction of a 50% chance of success at most. 

For its part, the Pentagon was frustrated by spooks’ cynicism, claiming intelligence officials found it “safer to bet on failure” and reminding spies of their incorrect assessment that Kyiv would fall within days of the invasion. Tribalism played a role — having overseen the programme to arm Ukraine, the Pentagon eagerly stressed the impact the new weapons would have in winning the war. 

Internal division is also becoming apparent regarding US policy on the Israel-Hamas war. On 3 January, seventeen Biden campaign staffers published a letter urging the administration to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Condemning the US response as “fundamentally antithetical” to American values, the letter claimed that campaign volunteers have “quit in droves” over Biden’s stance and — fuelling existing concerns that the President’s support for Israel will lose him votes among key young, Left-wing, Muslim and Arab-American demographics — that it “could cost [the Democrats] the 2024 election”. 

Meanwhile, on the same day, Education Department official Tariq Habash resigned over what he described as the US government’s “blind eye to the atrocities committed against innocent Palestinian lives”. Biden’s support for Israel will be harder for him to justify now, in the face of both a mounting Palestinian death toll and the public knowledge that even figures within the US administration have strong reservations. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin will also gleefully amplify these criticisms — he has used US assistance to Israel and the resulting Palestinian casualties as a tool to undermine America’s image in the Global South as he looks to strengthen ties with those countries.

While Austin committed to “doing better” in future after his clandestine hospitalisation, the issue is more significant than one man’s actions. As conflicts flare in Gaza and Ukraine and as Iranian-backed proxies attack American forces in the Middle East, the US President somehow did not know his defence chief was absent, reflecting poor internal communication and a leadership vacuum. Coming at the start of an election year, such a revelation is likely to leave voters concerned that Biden is not at the helm of a well-functioning administration. For his part, Austin can at least recuperate safe in the knowledge that the febrile nature of current affairs means he is likely to be kept in his post for now.  

With Donald Trump already riding high in the polls, the news will not help Biden cast off the “Sleepy Joe” moniker bestowed on him by his rival of an ageing, passive and out-of-touch commander-in-chief. Republicans have already seized upon the incident to say it “erodes trust in the Biden administration”, while it also suggests dysfunction within the Pentagon itself — Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks reportedly did not know of Austin’s hospitalisation even when assuming some of his duties. 

Meanwhile, as Ukraine and the US collaborate on a new battlefield strategy, any repeat of the differing assessments which developed within the American administration last year risks adding confusion to what is already likely to be a challenging year for Ukraine. The furore over Austin’s ill health is the latest symptom of a greater malady.