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Replacing Hagel: Obama’s Last Chance?

In choosing his next secretary of defense, President Obama can begin to move in the right direction by avoiding a “yes person.”

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Chuck Hagel’s sudden departure as President Barack Obama’s third secretary of defense leaves the chief executive searching for a fourth at a time when presidents have usually settled upon a smoothly running and effective team to serve the duration of their terms.

Despite Mr. Obama’s nice words on accepting Mr. Hagel’s resignation, there is no doubt that the secretary of defense was pushed out. The Washington commentariat has a host of explanations: Hagel’s sometimes fumbling comments to the media, his supposed reticence to speaking up at meetings in the White House’s Situation Room, and the leaked memo he sent to the president criticizing US policy towards Syria. The logic of a senior official speaking up about a policy that hasn’t made sense for years is beside the point. Officially criticizing a failing policy from within the American administration is just “not done.”

That aside, who will replace Chuck Hagel? The commentariat, again, has offered a list of candidates, real or imagined, while emphasizing the undesirable aspects of the job. Indeed, if a loyalist like Hagel, with his long resume of achievements—including enlisted combat veteran to seasoned US Senator—can be given the shove, why would anyone want to replace him? Especially with only two years to go? Not to mention the guaranteed withering examination by the Senator Armed Services Committee, chaired in the new Congress by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who is no friend of the president’s or his foreign and security policies.

It is understandable that a US Senator (John Reed, D-RI) has taken himself out of the running because he already has important national security responsibilities. Someone who has already been through the Pentagon’s meat grinder in a senior post (Michele Flournoy) also has little reason to want to go through the process again. Some people on Mr. Obama’s short list could also worry that they would become tarnished goods by the time the next administration takes office only 26 months from now.

There is also the issue of being raked over the coals by Chairman McCain and other Senate Republicans. But that goes with the territory. Indeed, unless the nominee has been guilty of moral turpitude or, worse, has not paid Social Security taxes on a household employee, he or she will gain Senate confirmation. This fact makes nonsense of the argument that it is best to nominate someone who has already been through Senate scrutiny. By that standard, there can never be any “new blood” following the first days of an administration.

The questions should be, therefore, put the other way around: why not accept the appointment if the president asks? Service to the nation used to be the single criterion for accepting a president’s call for any job at any level.

And then the most important question: Other than to serve one’s country, is the job worth having? The answer is far from clear. By all accounts of this administration, virtually all key decisions on foreign and security policy are made in the White House by the small coterie around the president and a National Security Council staff that is many times larger than any other in US history. Judging by the memoirs of Hillary Clinton (State), Bob Gates (Defense) and Leon Panetta (CIA and Defense), the only top official outside the White House so far to have been able to play an effective role is the current Secretary of State, John Kerry. Of course, it’s still not clear how much even he is involved in setting major policies as opposed to (ably) carrying them out.

In any case, all potential nominees for secretary of defense who want to play a serious role in helping to shape foreign and security policy need to ask the president two questions before accepting the summons to serve. First: “Mr. President, will I be able from time to time to meet with you privately? And second: “Mr. President, will I be able to choose my own key officials, top to bottom, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense?”

Every president routinely gets the first question and answers “Yes,” though whether he honors it later on is another matter, especially with anxious and perhaps insecure White House staffers hovering at his elbow. Some presidents may also give at least partial approval to the second request. But it is rarely honored, especially as, over the last several administrations, key offices in foreign policy and defense have been so politicized that secretaries of state and defense are regularly robbed of the right to pick people whom they deem to be most qualified to serve the nation’s interests.

There is also a third question that a potential appointee is unlikely to ask: “Mr. President, at least in areas of my responsibility, will you rein in the National Security Council staff?” Unless Obama changes his modus operandi and that of his national security advisor, the answer would be “No,” so there is little point asking.

An even more basic question, even less likely to be asked, is whether Obama is well served by the way his administration has been managed in the areas of foreign policy and defense. It is not as though the United States were still experiencing the “holiday from history” we enjoyed for the first several years after the Cold War. Since 9/11, challenges have been coming thick and fast and thus impose a greater need for serious people in serious jobs, who are capable of strategic thinking and acting.

With his selection of Mr. Hagel’s successor, Obama is likely to have his last chance to get it right. (Sending his Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, to be Deputy Secretary of State may help; Blinken does know how the White House works and might be able to get the State Department back “in the game” of policymaking, from which it has been largely excluded.)

At the very least, the president needs someone who can advance the work that Panetta and Hagel were tasked to undertake: the downsizing and reshaping of the US defense establishment. On November 15, Hagel outlined a new “defense innovation initiative” to jump-start the process of thinking through the weapons and doctrines needed to fight the nation’s future wars. While this makes the firing of Hagel less than a fortnight later even stranger, following through on this proposal, along with dealing with Pentagon budget cuts, will be a useful job for the new secretary of defense. This would be the case even if Obama decides he does not want a Pentagon chief with a broader vision of American foreign policy, and who might compete with White House staff and challenge his own iron control.

Yet as President Obama contemplates what he calls the “last quarter of my presidency,” he should be thinking about whether it is not too late to gather around him the brain power and experience any president would need to meet the host of global challenges that are trending upward, not downward.

By January 2017, he is virtually guaranteed to have at least two great achievements regarding US security and its position in the world: the radical reduction in the potential threat to the homeland from Islamist terrorism; and his rescuing of the domestic economy as well as America’s reputation for competence in leading the global financial system. Unless thwarted by politics at home (and in Iran) he may also have tamed the Iranian nuclear program.

These are not mean achievements. But without a change in the way his White House does business, and an emphasis on strategic thinking (that has so far been largely absent), in many other areas Obama may not be able to claim that he left the US in a better position than it was in when he first assumed the presidency.

In choosing his next secretary of defense, the president can begin to move in the right direction by avoiding a “yes person” or someone willing to acquiesce to the demands of White House staffers. Obama should choose someone who is strong, smart, knowledgeable about defense matters, and experienced. The president must then give him or her his full backing.

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