Micah Zenko

The 3:00 AM Call

The 3:00 AM Call

President Obama’s nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as the secretary of defense led to an outcry from a number of Beltway mind-readers who have apparently mastered Hagel’s positions on Iran (too soft), gay diplomats (too hard), and Israel (too anti). Opposing these clairvoyants are pundits claiming that it does not matter who Obama nominates as his secretary of defense, since policymaking will be concentrated in the White House regardless. The White House has promoted this notion, with Obama’s spokesperson Jay Carney stating: "Sen. Hagel’s records on those issues (Israel and Iran) and so many others demonstrated that he is in sync with the president’s policies."

Missing from the peanut gallery is any substantive discussion of the secretary of defense’s statutory and customary role in the use of U.S. military power. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution declares the president "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy," which gives him the ultimate authority for decisions to go to war, or to conduct high-risk military operations — like the Mayaguez Incident in 1975 or the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011. As part of the "National Command Authority," however, defense secretaries also play a critical role in decisions to use force. These decisions include approving troops and supplies in support of ongoing wars and authorizing imminent military operations.

These oft-overlooked responsibilities are particularly relevant to Hagel’s upcoming confirmation hearings, since the United States faces a "period of persistent conflict" requiring the secretary of defense to make important decisions about how and where the U.S. military is deployed and used. Consider a few illustrative examples of such judgment in recent history.

In November 1983, President Reagan approved a joint U.S.-French air raid against a Hezbollah barracks in the Baalbek Valley in Lebanon in retaliation for attacks against U.S. forces deployed around Beirut. Secretary Caspar Weinberger — for reasons that remain unclear — refused to give the authorization order to the Sixth Fleet commander permitting the aircraft to leave their flight decks. When briefed on what happened (or, in this case, did not happen), President Reagan responded: "That’s terrible. We should have blown the daylights out of them. I just don’t understand." However, Reagan never demanded an explanation from Weinberger or disciplined him in any way.

In April 1988, a submerged naval mine in the Persian Gulf — determined by the Pentagon to have been implanted by Iran — tore a 22-foot hole in the hull of the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts. In response, Reagan authorized "Operation Praying Mantis" — retaliatory raids on two oil platforms used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy for surveillance. The explicit rules of engagement permitted the U.S. military to attack any Iranian military assets attempting to stop the raids. In the brief and one-sided engagement that followed, Iran lost half of its navy. In the aftermath, as a damaged Iranian frigate Sabalan was being towed back to the port of Bandar Abbas, the pilot of a U.S. Navy A-6E attack aircraft requested permission to destroy. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci heard this request while monitoring the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center radio communications. Carlucci ordered the Sabalan to be spared, deeming that the devastating earlier encounters were commensurate with the president’s wishes.

In September 1993, Major General Thomas M. Montgomery, deputy commander of the United Nations forces in Somalia, requested tanks and armored vehicles to protect humanitarian supply convoys from attacks by militia groups. Secretary Les Aspin refused to authorize their deployment because the White House and Congress wanted to prevent an expanded military role in Somalia. Three days before stepping down as chairman of the joint chiefs, General Colin Powell asked Aspin to reconsider, to which he replied: "It ain’t gonna happen." That decision was revisited after the "Black Hawk Down" tragedy cost the lives of 18 U.S. servicemembers (and between 500 and 1,000 Somalis), as some claimed that armor could have saved those American lives — though the commander of the ill-fated raid asserted that he might not have used it anyway.

In 2005, CIA and Special Operations teams in northern Pakistan developed intelligence giving them "80 percent confidence" about the future location of senior al Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri. A concept of operations was proposed in which 30 Navy SEALs would parasail 30 miles from Afghanistan to a Pakistan staging area, where they would attempt to kill or capture the suspected terrorist. Shortly before the operation was scheduled to commence, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it off due to concerns that it was too great a risk and would exacerbate diplomatic tensions with Pakistan. Though the raid was supported by CIA Director Porter Goss and Special Operations Commander Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, Rumsfeld exercised his authority to make the final call.

Several of the senators who will vote on Hagel’s nomination say they want answers to their specific policy questions, or more generally to "better understand his worldview." However, in both the written "advance policy questions" and the confirmation hearings, senators rarely ask candidates about their view on the proper role and utility of using military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. Far more often than the examples listed above, secretaries of defense are called upon to make decisions about how military forces are deployed or used, in ways that require the wisdom and judgment to weigh competing interests.

Based largely upon his combat experiences in Vietnam, Hagel has indicated that he supports the use of force as a last resort, but only in a manner that is "wise and smart." This suggests that when his phone rings at 3:00 a.m. and he must decide to send troops into harm’s way, or authorize airstrikes, he — like many of his predecessors — would say no. Such restraint based upon his unique understanding of the inherent limits of military force would not be a bad thing.