Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is being forced out, after less than two years on the job. The New York Times (which received the initial leak from the White House), gladly served up administration spin that Mr. Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, lacked the required skills to deal with emerging threats.
To be fair, there is an element of truth in the critique of Chuck Hagel’s leadership skills. He was a lousy choice for SecDef at the very moment our military establishment needed an extraordinary leader. As we observed during Mr. Hagel’s tortured confirmation process in 2013, he was the wrong man for the wrong job at the worst possible time:
It doesn’t take a military genius to understand that DoD desperately needs someone with ideas, exceptional managerial acumen and a road map for America’s military forces in the 21st Century. To date, President Obama hasn’t offered much, other than winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which would have occurred regardless of who was in the Oval Office); his strategic focus on the Pacific theater and massive cuts in the defense budget.
The next Secretary of Defense faces huge challenges. Even without sequestration, the Pentagon is looking at roughly $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, along with cuts in personnel and hardware that will create significant operational obstacles. Good luck taking on a modernized Chinese military with a force that, on its current trajectory, will be completely hollowed out by the end of Mr. Obama’s second term.
And we’re being told that Chuck Hagel is the right man to lead the Defense Department at this critical moment. How rich. We’re not sure if Mr. Hagel ever had a marshal’s baton in his knapsack (following Napoleon’s famous dictum); at this point, we’d just like to know if he actually has a clue.
To date, Chuck Hagel is the only former enlisted soldier to be appointed as Secretary of Defense. As an Army infantryman in Vietnam, Hagel served honorably, receiving two Purple Hearts and the Army Commendation Medal. But his involvement with the military largely ended when he returned from Vietnam and didn’t resume until Hagel entered the U.S. Senate in 1996. As a member of that body, he developed a friendship with Barack Obama, centered on their skepticism about the war in Iraq.
And there’s the rub: searching for a replacement for Leon Panetta, the commander-in-chief’s primary concern was finding someone with the requisite anti-war credentials and not the vision and leadership needed to lead DoD in an environment defined by the emergence of ISIS; China’s growing military might, a resurgent Russia, continued military operations in Afghanistan and sequestration-imposed budget cuts.
It doesn’t take a general to understand that dwindling resources translates–quickly–into decreased military readiness, a problem compounded by the so-called “procurement holiday” of the 1990s and a decade of war in the Middle East. In an interview with Charlie Rose last week, Mr. Hagel said senior DoD leaders were openly worried about the situation facing our armed forces (H/T: PJ Tattler):
Hagel re-iterated that to Rose, but also left viewers to wonder about the direction that President Obama is taking the military.
“I am worried about it, I am concerned about it, Chairman Dempsey is, the chiefs are, every leader of this institution,” Hagel said, including Pentagon leadership but leaving both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s names out of his list of officials who are worried about the U.S. military’s declining capability. Hagel said that the Congress and the American people need to know what while the U.S. military remains the strongest, best trained and most motivated in the world, its lead is being threatened because of policies being implemented now.
In the past couple of years, Hagel has warned that defense budget cuts implemented under President Obama were hurting readiness and capability. The “how smart you are” line may be a veiled shot at President Obama, who basks in a media image that he is a cerebral, professorial president.
Reportedly, the “professor-in-chief” became miffed when Mr. Hagel recently suggested that ineffective policies against ISIS in Syria were actually aiding that country’s dictator, Bashir Assad. The outgoing defense chief has a point, but some would ask if he–and the service chiefs–could have been more forceful in stating their opposition to budget cuts, micro-management of the campaign against ISIS and the President’s refusal to acknowledge the threat posed by the terror army until is was almost too late.
And the situation is unlikely to improve under Secretary Hagel’s potential successors, Michelle Flournoy, Ashton Carter and Jack Reed. Ms. Flournoy served in senior defense posts in the Clinton Administration and was Under-Secretary of Defense during Obama’s first term; Carter was the Deputy SecDef during the same period and Reed is a longtime Democratic Senator from Rhode Island. Early speculation suggests Ms. Flournoy has the inside track, which would allow President Obama to appoint the first female Secretary of Defense.
Of the three, only Senator Reed has served in uniform; after graduating from West Point, he was an active-duty officer from 1971-1979 and remained in the Army Reserve until 1991. Describing him as a doctrinaire liberal would be an understatement.
At this point, it probably doesn’t matter who serves as SecDef; Mr. Obama shows no inclination to change his national security policies, and the outlook for defense spending is equally grim. Perhaps the real question is who will be nominated for the job in 2017, as part of the next administration. That individual–whomever it might be–will face a near-impossible job.