Defense Secretary Fires Back at GOP Lawmaker Charging Pentagon with Bad Call on Ukraine and 'Woke-ism'

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III provides testimony.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III provides testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the fiscal 2023 defense budget, Washington, D.C. April 5, 2022. (DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force TSgt. Jack Sanders)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin defended U.S. military efforts related to Ukraine and the strength of the military in general during a fiery exchange with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., on Tuesday.

At a wide-ranging House Armed Services Committee hearing, Gaetz pressed Austin about a lecture on democratic socialism at the National Defense University that became a target for conservative media, accusing Pentagon officials of misplacing their focus.

"You guys said that Russia would overrun Ukraine in 36 days," Gaetz said. "You said that the Taliban would be kept at bay for months. You totally blew those calls, and maybe we would be better at them if the National Defense University actually worked a little more on strategy and a little less on woke-ism."

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A fired-up Austin shot back: "Has it occurred to you Russia has not overrun Ukraine because of what we've done and what our allies have done? Have you ever even thought about that?"

Since the start of the Biden administration, conservatives have been accusing Pentagon leadership of being more focused on so-called "woke" ideas such as diversity, equity and inclusion than on combat effectiveness. Similar GOP criticism during last year's House Armed Service Committee hearing with Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley prompted an impassioned response from Milley.

This year's hearing took place amid the backdrop of the five-week-old war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces have so far failed to achieve any major goals in the face of what U.S. officials have described as disastrous logistics and stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance. American defense officials have acknowledged that there could have been an intelligence gap that led the U.S. to overestimate Russia and underestimate Ukraine before the invasion.

Republicans have also accused the Biden administration of failing to deter the invasion by, among other things, not shipping enough weapons to Ukraine early enough.

In other exchanges at Tuesday's hearing, both Austin and Milley said they doubted that anything besides sending U.S. forces directly into Ukraine could have deterred Putin from what Milley described as a "long-standing" goal of invading. Milley added that he "certainly wouldn't have advised" deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine.

But it was the exchange with Gaetz that stoked the ire of the typically mild-mannered Austin.

Gaetz's early questioning, in which he did not let Austin rebut his allegations that the National Defense University was teaching socialism, prompted a warning from committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., that "we're not going to let the guy say four words and still talk and then cut him off."

But the exchange with Austin devolved into a shouting match shortly after that, when Gaetz contended that the military has fallen behind in the development of hypersonic weapons, which are also being pursued by adversaries such as Russia.

"What do you mean we're behind in hypersonics," Austin interjected.

After some back-and-forth on hypersonic weapons, Gaetz held that "it's not just the hypersonics."

"It's all over the world," he continued, citing increased Chinese military flights near Taiwan and North Korean missile tests.

Austin defended the U.S. military as the "most capable, most combat-credible force in the world" and accused Gaetz of being "embarrassed" by his country.

"I'm embarrassed by your leadership," Gaetz shot back. "It seems the Biden administration is trying to destroy our military by force-feeding it woke-ism."

Several Democrats later used part of their time to defend Austin and implicitly criticize Gaetz. Given the opportunity by Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., to further rebut the GOP's use of "contrived boogeymans," Austin maintained that he and the military are focused entirely on defending the country.

"So any notion that they're woke or that our military is woke, I take issue with that," Austin said. "Because it's just not true. It's a false narrative, and they deserve better than that."

When he concluded the hearing, Smith, without mentioning Gaetz by name, apologized for "one notable exception" to an otherwise "very, very good discussion."

"I looked it up. Sadly, I don't have the power to simply take a member's time away," Smith said.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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