There’s an annoying habit in politics of waiting until the “proper” time to do things. This gets in the way of the entire point of politics (or so we tell ourselves): effective execution of the business of the people.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James is due to step down sometime after the November election, ostensibly to be replaced by someone nominated by the country’s next chief executive. She shouldn’t wait. She should step down now, because she’s ineffective in her current role.
This is not to suggest that James has become newly ineffective. The fact is, she’s been mostly ornamental her entire tenure as SecAF, occasionally taking popular positions to buttress her public image while mostly treating her time at the helm as an opportunity to star in her own reality TV show. She has cheapened the role of SecAF. It’s supposed to be about championing and showcasing the people who make national defense through air and space possible. She’s made it all about her.
James proudly boasts of her globetrotting visits to Air Force locales far and wide, though she curiously boasts less when those locales are obviously tropical or otherwise luxurious. She makes no apology for disrupting the missions of countless wings, eagerly cashing in on the perceptual credit of appearing involved.
No one could accuse James of failing to appear a caring, hands-on, in-the-trenches leader. But it’s all for show. When the time comes for substantive action, she fails time and again … and often makes things worse.
Under her watch, the Air Force has shrunk to dangerously low manpower levels. She’s winced and whined about this publicly while privately pushing and blessing budgets that have made it happen.
Under her watch, the Air Force has developed a deep ethical madness, with commanders using their legal authority to quell free expression, to crush subordinates who dare disagree, and to wield the service’s bureaucracy as a weapon with which to enforce wave after wave of politically correct initiatives. This latter sickness has made a joke of serious matters like sexual assault and domestic violence, with embarrassing political gimmickry replacing sober leadership.
Under her watch, fights with Congress over the service budget diminished everyone in a blue uniform, with dishonesty and media manipulation (of a poorly conceived and badly executed species, no less) replacing transparent debate. The Air Force sunk to the lowness of the worst Congress in post-Civil War history, planting cynical narratives in the press and hatching cloakroom deals to push favored priorities. This instead of a dignified and operationally relevant policy portfolio pursued with inspiring conviction.
But worst of all, under her watch, the ultimate sin of leadership has been committed: the Air Force has forsaken its own future, eating its seed corn to satisfy short-term political objectives. Today, the Air Force is nearly one thousand pilots short of the number necessary to execute its mission. As anyone in the business knows, this means the training of new pilots will be sacrificed to meet mission demands, leaving the service increasingly shorter. Worst of all, the experienced pilots are the ones leaving, meaning a strict head count doesn’t come close to revealing the sheer risk of the institutional moment occasioned by James’s “leadership.”
Why are they leaving?
Because she and her generals haven’t listened. The officers of the Air Force have been telling them for her entire tenure what’s wrong. Too much nonsense. Too little support. Too many visits, too many bands, too much regalia and fanfare devoted to high-ranking officials, James included. Too little focus on the mission and those who make it happen. Too many non-negotiable administrative tasks and too much self-help getting them done. Too little focus on removing the structural and systemic obstacles between operational airmen and their professional objectives.
The pilot shortage has been developing for years, but James hasn’t addressed it. She can’t deny it anymore now that it’s become too severe to be concealed … and now that the new four star has confronted it head-on. Because she can no longer evade the issue, she’s blaming Congress for it rather than accept responsibility.
This is an unforgivable misstep for a leader at her level. You do not pass the buck. You do not politically shirk on operational issues. You do not instigate battles with Congress that will end up hurting the rank and file and harming the mission. Even in the shark tank that is political Washington, there are some things you don’t do. She’s doing them.
But most of all, you don’t use politics to divert attention from the true nature of a nationally consequential problem for the sake of saving your own political skin. James is attempting to craft a narrative that blames Congress for a problem of her own making. In doing so, she’s clouding the nature of that problem and delaying the emplacement of solutions that really matter to the salt-of-the-Earth people getting the job done … as well as those they fly and fight to defend. She’s hurting the country to benefit Debbie James. This is the sort of craven politics people worried about when she was nominated, and it turns out they were right to worry.
James should step down immediately, and give way to someone less politically inclined and more interested in linking arms with Gen. David Goldfein to solve the Air Force’s problems and advance its mission.