Debbie James, Please Just Go Away Already


In typical Debbie James style, the outgoing Secretary of the Air Force has started saying a mercilessly long-winded goodbye. With two months or so left of work to do, she’s already started making the media rounds to shore up her image and manicure her legacy, first appearing on the Daily Show and later granting access for a lame bit of hagiography from Breaking Defense.

This latest “interview” hits the meter somewhere between yawn and vomit. Her “insights” follow the standard pattern they’ve tracked for four painful years: vague, unoriginal, safe, and ultimately useless.

Professor James advises her successor to watch out for the unexpected. Wow, Debbie. Come up with that one all by yourself, or did you have help from Forrest Gump?

Public officials have been repeating this trope for decades. It’s basically Donald Rumsfeld’s public epitaph. But Debbie wields it with the voluminous vapidity of a J. Crew model starring in another dumbass rendition of the Mannequin Challenge. Under her hand, idiocy like this is celebrated while things like the Ice Bucket Challenge are outlawed. Ever thus to the unfortunate subjects of bureaucratic arbitrariness unchained from any sense of true leadership.


James also counsels transparency, reciting hackneyed managerial mumbo-jumbo about bad news not aging well. This is hilarious “advice” coming from someone who took the Air Force to new depths of politicization and opacity. On her watch, airmen were disinvited from discussions about the future of their own service and relegated to plebe status. The resulting starvation of common sense fuelled one failed personnel policy after another. Her minions substituted public relations for policy time and again.

On her watch, the service lied to Congress serially to the point that the Chief of Staff was essentially “shushed” in a nationally televised hearing by the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Fascists who rode flank for her in the creation of a “shut up and color” culture were at least forgiven and usually rewarded. Maj. Gen. James Post falsely accused officers of treason and was given a cool new position at the Pentagon. Col. Brian Hastings ruined a dozen lives with an unhinged extralegal witch hunt and got his first star. Gen. Robin Rand cultivated mass toxicity in the service’s training command and was rewarded with control of all Air Force nukes. The list is long, but undistinguished.

Let’s not forget the trophies for ineptitude she handed out like muffins at a compulsory Top Three bake sale. Gen. Mark Welsh lied to Congress by saying morale was “pretty darn good” and was nevertheless regaled with a 12-chariot tribute and a taxpayer-funded world tour when his time came to retire, never a speck of accountability visible in the public record. Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso “misplaced” a morale and welfare survey critical to the service’s understanding of just how far south of “pretty darn good” things were … and yet was given a position making her responsible for service-wide morale and welfare programs. Luckily, the survey was only misplaced for two years, and utterly useless by the time it was analysed.

And let’s also not forget about Peter principled E-9s like “Big Momma” Shelina Frey, who left behind a trail of obliterated morale on consecutive assignments in Qatar and Korea and was rewarded with the senior enlisted billet in Air Mobility Command, where she has already showcased her cluelessness. Notably, Frey visited Al Udeid Air Base last year during the unfolding mold scandal at the base and proceeded to tell airmen in her audience that their problems weren’t that bad. That alone should have disqualified her from any future “Command Chief” role.

On James’s watch, the Air Force broke its own spine by trying to shoulder too much weight without the mass to carry it. She leaves behind a 100,000-person staffing shortage and a pilot retention crisis that have Russia and China licking their chops with anticipation. All precisely because the Air Force under Debbie James refused to openly confront its problems.

What tonic does she recommend in the face of such a challenging role? Well, she doesn’t. Her response in Breaking Defense is an invitation to futility. Essentially, she says ‘be ready to blame the world for being inconvenient.’ This kind of imbecility after years in the seat reflects a sharply limited capacity to learn. James explains that even though she knew basically everything before taking over, pesky non-linear world events got in the way and forced her to actually do things. What she’s unintentionally saying is that it really surprised her the job was a leadership role. She was all set for a cushy administrative ride and suddenly found herself having to solve problems. Or at least be photographed appearing to do so.

Revelation, Debbie: this is what SecAFs get paid for. If there weren’t any problems and everything ran itself, we wouldn’t need a leader. A pure political figurehead in the aristocratic tradition would do just fine, happily able to bask in irrelevant and ignorant bliss. But there will always be problems, which is why SecAFs must be leaders, which is why you were such a remarkably horrible performer in the role. You’re not a leader, and should have left the role the minute you recognized it was calling for something you couldn’t deliver.

Some will counter with “but she’s nice.” That’s great. But we’re not making cheese sandwiches here. This is war, all the time. We’re either fighting it or preparing for it so we won’t have to fight it. People who get that are understandably annoyed by a SecAF who insists airmen play with dildos when they should be preparing to fly and fight.

Others will counter with “but I worked with her personally and hashtag!” Well that’s cool for the lucky few who get to carry the piss buckets in the ivory tower. For the balance of the anemically-manned active duty force, it has been a truly miserable four years, with a mission-resource delta and declining culture conspiring to rapidly tighten our radius of turn around the bottom of the military service toilet bowl (H/T to Facebook commenter).

The most common retort will be “but she couldn’t do anything because Congress.”

This is just pure, high-grade, undiluted bullshit. Every problem faced by an organization can be subdivided into that which can be controlled, that which cannot be controlled but can be influenced, and that which is beyond control or influence. Political constrains kept Debbie from doing everything, but they didn’t keep her from doing anything.

She could have set priorities. She could have removed red tape — which she developed an interest in doing only in the twilight of her tour. She could have sacked toxic leaders. She could have relieved the generals who broke the service with a mangled drawdown. Instead, Sam Cox was given a fresh command and a chance at a fourth star. She could have celebrated mission hackers. Instead, she showcased the two-month TSgts fronting the service’s dozen bands while her generals ran amok. She could have reined in the F-35 program and found an A-10 compromise to keep Congress onside. Instead, we have an unsustainable modernization program and an alienated legislature that looks at the Air Force as a junior member of defense. 

Most of all, Debbie could have made a serious gambit out of taking care of airmen. She could have pushed for better pay, fewer cutbacks, and fewer irrelevant deployments. She could have broken the AFPC culture that has driven thousands out of uniform. Congress didn’t prevent her from doing these things. She made her own choices.

I said some time back that Debbie should not wait for the clock to strike twelve. That she should step down, even if merely as a symbolic gesture of admission that all is not well in the Air Force, and that it needs a different kind of Secretary going forward. She was, of course, too self-important to read or heed that advice.

But I renew it now. We didn’t need her to stay. We certainly don’t need to watch her conduct a two-month self-celebratory farewell tour. It’s like enduring a live-action-role-play of a Whitney Houston ballad. So terrible. A few constituencies will be sad to see her go. They can usually be found behind desks in the Pentagon or distant from runway centerlines in the nonner reaches of Air Force bases. Let them be sad. Their natural condition is to bitch and moan anyway.

For everyone tapping on a compass waiting for it to swing back north, James is just an obstruction.

On their behalf, I implore you Debbie: get a two-month jump on those board memberships. It’ll give the service a chance to start accommodating to reality again before someone else steps in.

Who should that person be?

Easy. A leader who knows how to do politics when required for stewardship of the service and its people … not another zampolit incapable of leading her way out of a wet paper bag.

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