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Lloyd Austin says tumultuous world ‘demands’ U.S. leadership

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SIMI VALLEY, California — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday that the wars raging in the Middle East and Europe, coupled with increasingly brazen “bullying” by China, have underscored the need for robust U.S. leadership on the global stage.

“Only one country on Earth can provide the kind of leadership that this moment demands…and that’s the United States of America,” said Mr. Austin, who warned that global security crises will only worsen if Washington chooses isolation over engagement.

“We’re living through challenging times,” the Democrat-appointed defense secretary said in the keynote address at the 10th annual Reagan National Defense Forum — a bipartisan event well attended by devotees to the former Republican president’s “peace through strength” foreign and national security doctrine.



Mr. Austin said today’s challenges are multifold and include “the major conflicts facing our fellow democracies, Israel and Ukraine; bullying and coercion from an increasingly assertive China; and a worldwide battle between democracy and autocracy.”

“From Russia to China, from Hamas to Iran, our rivals and foes want to divide and weaken the United States — and to split us off from our allies and partners,” he told a crowd of several hundred gathered for the invite-only forum at the Ronald Reagan National Library in the sun-drenched mountains north of Los Angeles.

“At this hinge of history, America must not waver,” Mr. Austin said.

The defense secretary’s appearance — it was the third time he’s spoken at the forum in recent years — came amid growing talk among analysts of increasing challenges to U.S. leadership by an expanding axis of authoritarians, with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea at its core.

Internal debate among both Republicans and Democrats, finds some prominent members from both parties advocating against U.S. engagement and military entanglement overseas. Republicans, specifically, are seen to be divided over what some describe as the Biden administration’s “blank check” military aid for Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders.

Mr. Austin sought to confront those debates head-on in his remarks Saturday.

“In every generation, some Americans prefer isolation to engagement — and they try to pull up the drawbridge, they try to kick loose the cornerstone of American leadership,” he said.

“They try to undermine the security architecture that has produced decades of prosperity without great-power war, and you’ll hear some people try to brand an American retreat from responsibility as bold new leadership,” Mr. Austin said. “When you hear that, make no mistake: It is not bold. It is not new. And it is not leadership.”

“The world will only become more dangerous if tyrants and terrorists believe that they can get away with wholesale aggression and mass slaughter,” he said. “America will only become less secure if dictators and fanatics believe that they can wipe a democracy off the map.”

The Biden administration itself has faced sharp criticism over the disastrous 2021 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Many analysts argue the pullout — and specifically, the messy, telegraphed manner in which the administration conducted it — signaled weakness to U.S. adversaries and emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch his invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022.

Mr. Austin made no specific mention of Afghanistan on Saturday but sought to portray President Biden’s support of Ukraine as an example of the administration’s commitment to engagement and leadership at a moment of assault on democracy.

“The United States will only pay a higher price if autocrats and zealots believe that they can force free people to live in fear,” he said. “You can see that core insight at work in our approach to three quite different challenges: the crisis in the Middle East, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the strategic challenge from the People’s Republic of China.”

He stressed that China has emerged as the only U.S. rival with “the intent, and increasingly the capacity, to reshape the international order.”

“[China] hopes that the United States will stumble and become isolated abroad and divided at home,” Mr. Austin said.

He asserted that the Biden administration is countering Beijing by “making our force posture in the Indo-Pacific far more distributed, mobile, and resilient,” while also helping regional allies beef up their own defense capabilities.

“Allies and partners help us project power and share the burden of our common security,” Mr. Austin said. “Don’t just take it from me. Take it from President Reagan, who said that ‘our security ultimately rests’ on ‘the confidence and cohesion’ of our alliance system.”

With regard to the Middle East, Mr. Austin stressed that “America’s commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad,” although he added that the Biden administration “will continue to press Israel to protect civilians and to ensure the robust flow of humanitarian aid” into Gaza.

Ignoring the humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians risks driving them to embrace Hamas, he said, adding that he has personally “made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”

“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population, and if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Mr. Austin said.

More broadly, he tied the Israel-Hamas war to that between Russia and Ukraine, asserting that both feature “democracies…fighting ruthless foes, who are out to annihilate them.”

“We will not let Hamas or Putin win, and we will not let our enemies divide or weaken us,” Mr. Austin said, adding that “as we surge support into Israel, we remain focused on Ukraine, and we remain fully able to project power, to uphold our commitments, and to direct resources to multiple theaters.”

“If we do not stand up to the Kremlin’s naked aggression today, if we do not deter other would-be aggressors, we will only embolden them — and invite even more bloodshed and chaos,” he said.

The defense secretary’s remarks were sobering, although there were lighter moments in his speech Saturday inside the Reagan Presidential Library’s vast Air Force One Pavilion.

At one point, he referenced the former president’s notorious humor. “Watching the news these days sometimes reminds me of one of President Reagan’s jokes,” said Mr. Austin. “‘Today,’ [Mr. Reagan] would say, ‘if someone offered us the world on a silver platter…most of us would take the platter.’”

“The troubles of our times will only grow worse without strong and steady American leadership to defend the rules-based order that keeps us safe,” Mr. Austin said. “If we forfeit our position of responsibility, our rivals and foes will be glad to fill the vacuum.”

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