Pentagon Policy, Budget Issues Not Likely to Change in Wake of Hagel Firing
By Sandra I. Erwin
The resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is being spun every which way: The secretary grew tired of the White House micromanagement. The president fired him for bad performance. Hagel is a scapegoat for bad U.S. policy.
It is probably all of the above.
But as rumors swirl about Hagel's potential successors, defense insiders say it really does not matter who steps in to run the Defense Department because the White House National Security Council is going to continue to set the agenda on most major issues. Further, Hagel’s successor would have limited influence on key issues such as military budgets before a new administration takes over in 2017.
Frontrunners Michele Flournoy and Ash Carter, who served as undersecretaries of defense under Obama, would be safe choices as they both have been confirmed during this administration and have technocrat credentials. "Any of them could do the job, but, frankly, it doesn't matter who they put in there" because the secretary of defense has so little clout in national security policy, said former Pentagon official Steven Bucci, now a national security policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"They could even leave it open and let Deputy Secretary Bob Work step up as acting," he said.
Bucci echoed the concerns of other critics of the Obama White House who have been alarmed by the administration's extraordinarily centralized management of the military and national security policy. Hagel's predecessors and seasoned Washington operators Bob Gates and Leon Panetta both have hammered the Obama White House for unprecedented micromanagement.
The incoming chairman of the House Armed Service Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, called for Obama to appoint a defense secretary who can more forcefully lead the department. "I am concerned, Secretary Hagel’s successor must be a person who is strong enough to stand up against such attempts [by the White House to micromanage], who is willing to speak up for our men and women in uniform, and who is prepared to advocate for what it takes for them to succeed in the missions they are assigned," Thornberry said in a statement. "The increased dangers we are facing around the world are, in part, the result of weak defense policies by President Obama."
In a similar vein, the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he hopes the president will “nominate a secretary of defense with the strength of character, judgment, and independence that Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel all exhibited at their best.” McCain said he knew that Hagel had been “frustrated with aspects of the administration's national security policy and decision-making process. His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micro-management they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck's situation was no different.”
Bucci said Hagel was thrown under the bus for failed administration policies over which he had little say. It appears unlikely that his replacement will be allowed into the president's inner circle of policy makers, said Bucci. "I don't think the president is going to get anybody in there who is going to push the agenda in any way other than where the White House wants it to go." The suggestion by White House officials that Hagel is being let go because of his lack of skills in running the campaign against the Islamic State is a "red herring," Bucci said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has drawn far more administration ire than Hagel for hinting that a new strategy might be needed to combat ISIL. But Obama probably decided it was more politically expedient to let Hagel go than to fire the nation's top military officer, Bucci said. "It sends a very different message to the American people when you fire the uniformed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Hagel is the third of Obama's defense secretaries who is either throwing in the towel or pushed out the door. This makes for high drama in Washington, but nobody should be surprised, said Bucci.
When Obama nominated Hagel 19 months ago, the environment was vastly different. Hagel was brought in to oversee the downsizing of the military and to provide political cover as a former Republican senator from Nebraska. When a slew of crises — Putin's invasion of Ukraine, the rise of ISIL, the Ebola outbreak — began to consume the administration, White House officials started to point fingers, Bucci said. "This firing is meant to be a diversion away from the fact that the president's national security policy has not been working very well."
Within the Pentagon, a leadership shakeup is not likely to result in major change, defense insiders said. The so-called "pivot to Asia" plan will stay in place as the initiative was spurred by the administration. The Pentagon's budget woes will continue as there is no appetite on Capitol Hill for a budget deal that would spare the federal government from across-the-board spending cuts that are set in law.
"At this stage in the Obama administration, a new secretary of defense is probably not going to be that impactful for defense as the fiscal year 2016 DoD budget is largely completed and the 2017 budget will ultimately fall into the lap of the new administration elected in 2016,” wrote Capital Alpha defense industry analyst Byron Callan. “There isn't a lot of time for a new SecDef to implement major new changes that are different than current program priorities and policies.”
In a statement, Dempsey praised Hagel for his leadership and advocacy of veterans. “Secretary Hagel brought a soldier's heart to work every day. He cared deeply for our young men and women in uniform.”
The Association of the U.S. Army praised Hagel for having a “soldier’s touch, and for being open with military and veterans service organizations. As a former sergeant, he understood readiness and combat capability is always a top priority even as there are significant needs for personnel, weapons modernization and other programs.”
But some veterans disagree. Pete Hegseth, president of the conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America, said the problem with Hagel was that he was unable to articulate a broad strategy for the military. “Secretary Hagel, along with the rest of President Obama’s national security team, failed to articulate a clear national security strategy and instead projected weakness and indecision to the rest of the world which has led to increasing chaos from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. … Under Secretary Hagel’s leadership, even simple tasks like naming a military operation became difficult for the Pentagon.”
Hegseth also sees Hagel as a scapegoat for larger failures. “We hope that this is only the beginning of a larger restructuring of the president’s national security team and that many more advisers will follow Secretary Hagel out the door in the near future.”
Hagel said he will stay until a successor is confirmed by the Senate. "You should know I did not make this decision lightly," he told Defense Department employees and military service members in a statement. "But after much discussion, the president and I agreed that now was the right time for new leadership here at the Pentagon."
A White House spokesman said Obama is looking for the next defense secretary to have "good understanding of the workings of the Pentagon and managerial skills."