SIMI VALLEY, California — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said over the weekend that the wars raging in the Middle East and Europe, coupled with increasingly brazen “bullying” by China, have only underscored the dangers for the world without robust U.S. leadership on the global stage.
With the Biden administration‘s expansive and expensive support of allies such as Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan proving politically divisive at home, the Pentagon chief argued recent events show the dangers of isolationism when the U.S. retreats from the international arena.
“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 withdrawal over engagement as its guiding principle.
“We’re living through challenging times,” the former Army general 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.
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“At this hinge of history, America must not waver,” Mr. Austin told the forum, which featured public remarks by new Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. CQ Brown, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Commander Adm. John Aquilino, U.S. Southern Command Commander Gen. Laura Richardson, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and a wide range of other senior military officials.
A host of U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, were also on hand.
And a range of corporate defense industry leaders such as Booz Allen Hamilton President and CEO Horacio Rozanski, as well as such high-level former national security and intelligence community leaders as former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former National Security Advisers Stephen Hadley and Robert O’Brien, spoke at the forum.
The intersection between the Pentagon and high-tech private Silicon Valley firms racing to incorporate artificial intelligence applications in U.S. defense systems was a major theme throughout the event, which drew sponsorships from defense industry leaders such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well tech giants Palantir, Microsoft and Google.
In his remarks, Mr. Austin pressed Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, and other lawmakers to pass a full-year defense budget, and not to fall back on a stopgap funding bill that simply repeats past budget totals.
“Our competitors don’t have to operate under continuing resolutions,” Mr. Austin said. “Doing so erodes both our security and our ability to compete.”
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Challenges abroad and at home
The defense secretary’s appearance — it was the third time he’s spoken at the forum in recent years — came amid growing challenges to the postwar, U.S.-led international order from an expanding axis of authoritarian countries, with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea at its core.
Prominent skeptics from both major parties are advocating for a sharply scaled-back level of U.S. engagement and military entanglement overseas. Congressional Republicans in particular have seen major divisions over what some describe as the Biden administration‘s “blank check” military aid for Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders.
Mr. Austin confronted 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 six months later in February 2022.
Mr. Austin made no specific mention of Afghanistan on Saturday, but portrayed President Biden’s full-throated 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.”
‘Ironclad’ with Israel
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.
He also blamed Iran for “raising tensions” in the region, and asserted that attacks on U.S. troops by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria “must stop.”
“We will not tolerate attacks on American personnel,” the defense secretary 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. “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.
Despite the stern tone, 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 famous wit. “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.’”