The curious case of the missing resignations

One of the strangest things about the Afghanistan debacle is that in spite of extraordinarily harsh criticism worldwide, nobody has resigned, and nobody has been fired. Many assume that this is so because the failure is President Biden's, but in thinking this, they are simply wrong.

Consciousness of failure is only one of many reasons for resignations from high government positions. Some resign in protest at what is being done, or to publicly dissociate themselves from it, as Cyrus Vance did in 1980 when President Carter tried to rescue the American hostages in Iran by military force.

Others resign to restore public confidence in their office — as British foreign secretary Lord Carrington did in 1982 when he failed to foresee Argentina's attack on the Falklands.

Some resign because they don't feel able to advocate for a president's policy as a key member of his team ought to be able to.

Some use the threat of resignation as leverage against a proposed action they think would be a major mistake, which puts the question to the president: can he risk the political fallout?

Some certainly resign because they know they failed badly, but that reason can be just as compelling whether the president was also complicit or not.

Yet as far as we can tell, not a single member of the team of people working with the president was moved by any of these different considerations, even when they had all been directly involved in a once-in-a-lifetime foreign policy catastrophe.

There are three obvious cases where resignation was and still is unavoidable — and for more than one of the reasons I've cited.

First, secretary of defense Lloyd Austin. Vast quantities of American weaponry have fallen into the hands of our enemies, and with that much sophisticated secret military technology. Advanced technology gives us a distinct military edge against any country, but some of it will now be available to our deadliest enemies worldwide. This is a military disaster.

It was the special responsibility of a defense secretary to make sure it could never happen. It was his duty to evaluate every decision made and every action taken with one eye on preventing any such possibility. As soon as he saw the president considering any action that ran this risk, he was obliged to say: while I am defense secretary, I cannot allow this risk to the nation's military strength. But he didn't, and he still doesn't understand that he should have.

Second, secretary of state Antony Blinken.


Photo credit: U.S. State Department.

By virtue of his office, he was responsible for the safety and welfare of all American citizens living in Afghanistan. Whatever the course of action under consideration by the president, his job was to keep a wary eye on how that action might impact his unique responsibility for the safety of Americans. When it was proposed to get troops out first and everyone else later, that should have set off loud bells in his head. Any secretary of state should have said: while I hold this office, I cannot allow that action to be taken. But he didn't, and he still doesn't understand that this was a grave dereliction of duty on his part.

Third, national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The administration's actions in Afghanistan have caused immense damage to the nation's security. The display of weakness and incompetence might embolden our enemies to undertake military adventures they would not otherwise have dared to take. Some of our technological superiority and the security that it afforded us is gone. Our international standing is severely weakened, with our friends feeling that they can no longer trust us. All of this adds up to a national security catastrophe. The responsibility entrusted to Sullivan should have had him evaluating every proposed action with an eye to preventing major damage to the special area of concern that was his. Instead, he sat by passively as a disaster unfolded.

In all three cases, high officials to whom had been entrusted specific areas of national policy failed to protect the country's interests in those areas. All should have been alert to dangers that uniquely concerned them and their offices and, if necessary, used the leverage of resignation to avert those dangers. We need to have confidence in these offices, and we can't while these three occupy them.

It has been reported that Blinken and Sullivan had reservations about what the president was doing but didn't press those reservations because they knew what the boss wanted. If that is true, then both failed to understand the difference between a personal assistant (AKA an office boy) and a duly appointed officer of the U.S. government who has a specific area of responsibility. Only the first can shrug his shoulders and go with what the boss wants. An officer of the United States is obliged by the nature of his responsibility to the nation (not just the president) to spell out what, given the nature of his office, he can and cannot accept. And he must insist.

All three were grossly negligent. But they won't go, because these are small men who cling to office regardless of failure and loss of credibility. No Carringtons here.

John M. Ellis is distinguished professor emeritus at U.C. Santa Cruz and the author of The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done (Encounter Books).

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