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MIA for DoD
Hunt for Hagel’s Successor Proves Difficult

In addition to the challenges posed by ISIS, Al Qaeda, Russia, Iran, China, and the myriad of other threats to American national security today, there’s one additional problem facing the Department of Defense today: nobody wants to lead it. Of the three names floated to the press following Chuck Hagel’s resignation, two of them, Senator Jack Reed and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, have publicly withdrawn themselves from consideration. That leaves former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and a White House struggling to find other options. As the Washington Post reports:

No matter who Obama selects as Hagel’s successor, the next defense secretary is likely to struggle, as Hagel did, to contain the instability rippling across the Middle East, given the potency of the Islamic State, the weakness of U.S. partners on the ground and the limits White House policymakers have imposed on U.S. involvement. […]

The next defense secretary will also have to contend with a sometimes-tense relationship with the White House. Both of Hagel’s predecessors, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, have criticized Obama’s handling of national security matters since leaving office and have complained of White House micromanagement of the military.

“Whoever the new secretary of defense is, they’re probably going to want to discuss with the leadership of the National Security Council the scope of freedom for decision-making at the Pentagon,” a former U.S. official said, referring to what he described as the White House’s desire to tightly control national security policy.

“Pentagon and State have to adjust to that,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration dynamics. “If you can’t adjust, you leave.”

Defense officials can’t be forced out if they don’t accept the job in the first place. With the President not making any other substantial changes to his national security team, an Administration criticized for being insular will likely become even more so. Following a series of public spats it’s clear that the White House won’t even permit officials close to the President, like Secretary Kerry, to override the NSC in picking their own deputies.

On the substantive challenges facing the next Secretary of Defense—Iraq, Syria, Iran, etc.—it’s unlikely that whomever the President chooses will be able to have an impact on strategy unless they’re already part of the President’s inner circle. As former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim discussed on the AI podcast on Monday, Hagel was effectively a “sacrificial lamb” for failures in Administration policy that he had virtually no hand in shaping.

As Zakheim notes, Hagel had some significant accomplishments, notably in maintaining strong military ties with Egypt and Israel despite sometimes testy diplomatic relationships. There’s some evidence that those ties may fray when Hagel exits.

Given that the future Secretary will have to face confirmation hearings from a hostile Republican Senate, and an Administration that seems to care most about the opinions of insiders—all before even considering the normal challenges that face the civilian head of the world’s most powerful military—it’s not surprising that candidates aren’t exactly lining up for the job.

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  • Reticulator

    The White House says Chuck Hagel didn’t provide enough creative new options. In other words, they should nominate a Holstein cow for the job. It would provide plenty of what they’re looking for.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Why wouldn’t it be more reasonable to believe that Hagel was being asked to leave simply because of the anti-Obama pressure a new GOP Congress planned to put on a GOP Defense Secretary?

      • Reticulator

        The GOP Congress has no demonstrated skills at pressuring anybody. What possible pressure could they bring to bear on Hagel? They have no leverage, and wouldn’t know how to use it if they had any.

        • FriendlyGoat

          In January, they have the complete power of the purse. They go to Hagel and say, look Buddy, you’re one of us Republicans. You either manage DoD the way we like, or we will tie you in knots and blame YOU, because you’re Obama’s guy. I doubt the White House wanted to deal with this. There is also the possibility that Obama no longer trusts Hagel to not be undermining for GOP political benefit—-now that they have so much power. The real reason for this is anything but a lack of “creative new options” no matter what they say.

          • Reticulator

            The Republicans won’t have any power to hurt or influence Hagel. The Democrats control the media, the entertainment industry, the financial sector, and academia. That combination can make life miserable for anyone who dissents. But Republicans have no power to tie anyone in knots, whatever that means. Republicans blaming someone is no big deal. It has never stopped the White House from doing anything, and won’t in the future. Republicans have already shown that even with majorities in both houses, the threat of a veto is enough to bring them to a standstill, so they have no way to bring financial pressure to bear. Republicans do not have any power, and would not know how to use it if they did. Actually, to the extent that they do understand it, they are afraid to use it, because the power still resides in the media/financial/entertainment/academic complex. Elections didn’t change any of that.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Us liberals are not convinced we are in power over much of anything come January, except that Obama still has a veto (which he likely won’t use as much as he should).

          • Corlyss

            “Us liberals are not convinced we are in power over much of anything come January”

            You’re kidding yourself. Obama has the bully pulpit, which will always defeat the 535 whores fighting for the microphone. Also, why do you think Obama is threatening to do everything with EO and regulatory agencies? Jonathan Turley is a leftie law prof who testified to Congress recently about the danger posed by the aggrandizement of the presidential powers in the last two administrations, as well as the emergence of the regulatory agencies as a 4th extra-constitutional branch of government. The point he was trying to make to Congress is that over the last half century, Congress has been too fond of crafting complex overly broad legislation and then turning too much of the implementation detail over to the president and the regulatory agencies. My own take on it is slightly different to arrive at a similar conclusion: a legislature elected by people who want it to do something and which sits year round will always find something to do when the better part of wisdom would be to do nothing. Very few problems demand a national solution.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I’m just a regular leftie, not an Uberleftie.

          • Corlyss

            “In January, they have the complete power of the purse.”

            Right. The party that craves a more robust defense/foreign policy posture, or at least more realistic assessment of the dangers on the horizon, is going to decrease the DoD budget to make a point. You forget the sequester was the administration’s idea, and it’s the Republicans who’ve been clamoring for an end to its affect on DoD.

            “You either manage DoD the way we like, or we will tie you in knots and blame YOU, because you’re Obama’s guy.”

            Weak at best. Everyone knows that the SecDef effects the president’s policy. Obama thought he was getting a twofer with Hagel: he got to pretend he’s bipartisan (you have to admit “I’ve got a Republican in DoD” is not as clever as James Watt’s “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”) and he gets a Republican who thinks the way Obama does regarding American retreat. What’s not to like about this scenario for Republicans? Hagel is not now nor ever would be their principal target.

            “There is also the possibility that Obama no longer trusts Hagel to not be undermining for GOP political benefit—-”
            Only an Uberleftie would think that because Obama didn’t appoint Dennis Kucinich as SecDef. Obama already knew Hagel had nothing in common with Republicans or he wouldn’t have appointed him.

          • FriendlyGoat

            There is the chance that the new Republicans actually hate what they perceive as a RINO more than they would have hated a more purist leftie. “Something” explains Hagel’s replacement more than his lack of providing more “creative new options”.

          • Corlyss

            “”Something” explains Hagel’s replacement more than his lack of providing more “creative new options”

            You’re right. Something does explain it. The only sin this administration punishes for is disloyalty or questioning the wisdom of the guy who’s advertised he’s always been the smartest person in any room he’s ever been in. Hagel began to think like the national interest in defense was more important than Obama’s. . . er . . . Val’s ego. You’ve read here in post after post by the pros as well as the groundlings like us that Obama’s strategies across the field of foreign affairs have been ignominious failures – take your pick: Russia, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Syria, ISIS, Al Qaeda. As they say, one is a tragedy, two is coincidence, but three is suspicious. In this case, it’s screaming evidence of failure to staff the most critical jobs with competent people and to take the advice of people who know more than he . . . er . . . Val does. His circle of advisors is tiny and reduced to only those who make him feel good about his decisions. Criticism will not be tolerated. If you haven’t already, listen to the insiders’ scuttlebutt.

      • Corlyss

        Surely you jest.

        First of all, what makes you think Obama would do anything, ANYTHING, a GOP Congress would want? Surely you’re too smart, or at least experienced in the ways of this administration, to believe that Obama’s anti-Republican attitudes and his desire to build a permanent Democratic majority aren’t AT LEAST contributing to the inability of the two branches to get along.

        Secondly, what POSSIBLE pressure would a GOP Congress put on a RINO serving in the Obama administration? One reason Hagel accepted the job was because he agrees with Obama on defense policy and the other reason he accepted the job was there was not going to be a place for Hagel’s brand of “Republicanism” in the Senate for the foreseeable future. The Congress was only going to get more conservative, at least until 2019.

        Thirdly, you think it “just a coincidence” that Hagel’s usefulness to Obama ceased within a few weeks of Hagel’s suddenly violating the administration’s narrative of the Eden that awaits America when it trades security abroad for endless expansion of the welfare state? You simply aren’t that dumb, Friend.

        • FriendlyGoat

          I’m glad you think I’m not dumb, but you never know, I might be.

          • Corlyss

            “Obama is susceptible to seduction if they ever wake up to not bashing him 24/7.”

            Name one thing. Just one. Please.

            He almost compromised with Paul Ryan back in the first term, but he and Val are infamous for not honoring agreements, and by George! if he didn’t go back to the White House and consult with Val who told him not to do it because he didn’t owe Republicans anything. Here’s the deal, Friend: it has always been in his interests to compromise, esp. after the 2010 election, but that’s not in his playbook. His playbook has “double down” where “compromise” ought to be. Where’s the incentive for Republicans to try one more time to kick the football?

          • FriendlyGoat

            One thing: Tax cuts. Another thing: Trans-Pacific Partnership.

          • Corlyss

            ? I don’t mean to be picky, because I’m sure you had something both enacted and in effect in mind, but he campaigned on tax cuts for the middle class and working families. Did you have something else in mind, cuz it ain’t a compromise if it was his idea. The Trans-Pacific Partnership hasn’t been finalized yet and it is unlikely that Congress will give him the fast-track authority he so desperately wants. He can appear to agree to anything he knows he won’t get in the half-life of uranium.

  • jeburke

    Honestly, I think one of the worst developments in American governance has been the emergence of the Defense Secretary as the penultimate link in the chain of command, a product of cold war concern that civilian control over firing nuclear weapons be maintained in the event of a decapitating attack.

    It’s impossible to imagine US actions in the Second World War being managed by FDR in concert with Henry Stimpson and Frank Knox, rather than George Marshall and Ernest King. Stimpson’s job as Secretary of War and Knox’s as Secretary of the Navy was to organize the massive undertakings necessary to mobilize an army and navy and arm and equip them. Strategy was the responsibility of Marshall, King and what became the Joint Chiefs together with the Commander in Chief and theater commanders. Today, even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who has a statutory responsibility to advise the President, has to kow tow to the Secretary and, in practice, three or four other senior civilian officials. In fact, it is well known that Obama appointed Hagel to keep the generals at bay.

    As a result, Obama is lucky if he gets any straight military advice at all — even if his NSC staff weren’t keeping it out.

  • Andrew Allison

    I’m confused. This is the second post which appears to me to imply that the SecDef has responsibility for the current incoherence in Foreign Policy. Isn’t the DoD responsible for developing and implementing the military strategy required to implement foreign and national security policies? Seems to me that the SecDef’s role is to provide the latter with input as to the feasibility of their policies, and then do his or her best to deliver the military goods. What this post really seems to be saying is that nobody is listening.
    That said, Hagel was brought in to wind down our misadventures in the mid-East while the administration was stoking the fires, and what’s needed now is somebody with the skills to deal with the resulting conflagration. I’d appreciate some advice on this.

  • Skeptic

    I always thought that the only reason Hagel was in the position was to lend some “grunt” credibility to the axe which was going to fall on benefits for veterans and active duty military. By simply being former enlisted while presiding over sequestration he did his job perfectly. Now that his job is done he can be put out to pasture.

    The others who have commented here are right; SecDef should not be setting policy. The job is about equipping the armed forces for war and providing tactical and strategic military options for the expression of policy. Leave the rest to the State Department and Executive Branch.

  • Pete

    That man-child in the Oval office can sure mess things up, can’t he?

  • Government Drone

    On the other hand, I wonder if this is simply a timing issue. I mean, in a few weeks won’t the President have an opportunity to make a recess appointment that will give him up to a year or so of his own man in the Pentagon without the tedious embarrassment of a Senate confirmation circus? It would be quite doable for him to show up on TV sometime next month to announce his choice for a new Defense Secretary who has to start his/her job right away because of the whole international situation, & that he’d be happy to discuss with Congress who should fill the spot permanently at some (unspecified) later date…

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