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two of them, Senator Jack Reed and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, have publicly withdrawn themselves from consideration.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.