The Pentagon’s Invisible Man
Even the defense secretary admits, "It's not a Hagel era."
A week or so after Chuck Hagel was sworn in as the U.S. defense secretary, he picked up the phone on his desk to call George Little, then his press secretary, and told a temp in Little’s office that it was Chuck Hagel on the phone. The temp didn’t believe him and hung up on the secretary. Later, Hagel, known for making office calls on unsuspecting Pentagon workers, walked into Little’s outer office and playfully handed the temp his card — to help her remember who he was for next time.
More than nine months later, though, there is a lingering sense that she’s not the only one who doesn’t know who the man is.
When he was a senator, he was considered a free spirit — a political omnivore and independent speaker of truth to power on issues from military force to negotiations with Iran. So when he got the nod to be defense secretary, many assumed he would bring a new kind of vigor to the Pentagon just when the place needed it most.
But after surviving his infamously bruising confirmation battle, Hagel has made few daring moves. He hasn’t yet driven a pointed agenda, fired any poor-performing generals, or sent clear signals about how he’ll put his personal stamp on a job he seemed to want but many believe he has yet to own. There has been scant word of him scoring any of the kind of bureaucratic victories at the Defense Department or within the broader Obama administration that some Pentagon watchers would have thought they’d see by now. And on the most prominent issue confronting the Defense Department — the budget — his moves have been cautious. Just this month he announced details of cuts to headquarters personnel, but its centerpiece was only a decrease of 200 people — over five years – an underwhelming cut given popular perceptions of a bloated Pentagon bureaucracy.
Since he arrived at the Pentagon, there has been little public evidence of the quiet brashness for which Hagel was known in the Senate. There have been few signs of the audacity that animated the man whose public service began when he volunteered for the Vietnam War and continued through to the political maelstrom he entered after being nominated to head the Defense Department — and fought hard enough to survive.
Instead, Hagel’s contributions thus far seem mostly to fall in the behind-the-scenes category, more circumspect than courageous, and that style is at odds with a department that some believe needs a take-no-prisoners strongman of a manager.
That has given lift to the idea that Hagel operates only in the shadows of others in the president’s cabinet and that whatever promise was implied when Hagel was nominated as a sort of leading-man secretary has so far not materialized. Hagel has repeatedly shown deference to Secretary of State John Kerry, his old friend and colleague, on some of the most pressing global matters. It was Kerry, not Hagel, who took the lead on hammering out a security agreement to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And it was Kerry who became the public face of Barack Obama’s administration as it prepared to launch a military strike on Syria. Even on one of Hagel’s signature issues — negotiations with Iran — Hagel seemed content to play second fiddle. "Secretary Kerry has said, ‘A bad deal is worse than no deal," Hagel told the Reagan Defense Forum in November. And as Hagel noted during a joint appearance with the secretary of state in October, "As we all know, this is Secretary Kerry’s area of responsibility."
There’s little question that the Obama administration is trying to shepherd in an era of diplomacy and play down its military might. Hagel’s people say their man is trying to play team ball and has purposely tried to stay away from showy plays, even though there were times when he could do so. Hagel’s reticence may be just what the Obama administration wanted; few people believe the White House really wants an activist defense secretary.
Even to those behind the scenes, it remains unclear yet what traction — if any — Hagel has "across the river," as the military refers to the White House. When President Obama decided at the last minute to punt the decision to strike Syria to Congress after a South Lawn stroll with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, it seemed clear that Hagel, Obama’s senior military aide, had played no significant role in the president’s decision.
If there is a whispering campaign about Hagel and his influence, some people don’t even want to whisper; a number of Washington’s most prominent public defense analysts took a pass when asked to comment about Hagel’s agenda. It could be a sign that, even in the security establishment, no one is quite sure what to make of Hagel, or are unwilling to render an opinion about a man for whom the jury is still sequestered.
Asked to describe what he thinks the "bumper sticker" of his time at the Pentagon would be, Hagel, in an interview with Foreign Policy in his E-ring office last month, took a pass.
"That bumper sticker will be assigned not by me, but by those who will grade and evaluate whatever I left behind in the job I did," he said. "I didn’t take this job going in with some perception of ‘this is my bumper sticker’ or the so-called Hagel era. I don’t think that way." He added: "It’s not a Hagel era; it’s an Obama era. I’m an agent of the administration."
With his Midwestern temperament and accessible, low-key style, Hagel doesn’t seem like the kind of politician to seek attention. Yet when he was in the Senate, he was known for taking bold stands, most notably bucking his own party’s hard-line stance on the Iraq war. "To question your government is not unpatriotic — to not question your government is unpatriotic," he said in response to criticism of his stance at the time. He also challenged the U.S.-Israel alliance, angering conservatives and some Democrats alike, and he pushed for diplomacy when it came to Iran. It was that kind of thinking about major policy issues that helped burnish his image as an independent who calls it as he sees it. But so far it’s unclear whether that’s the Hagel the Pentagon got.
"He’s nobody’s ‘man,’" said one former senior administration official who asked not to be identified by name. "He has yet to be identified with an individual or a constituency for whom he is an aggressive advocate."
Even Hagel agrees he has worked in the shadows in his first months as he quietly managed problems and got spun up in the job. "I intentionally tried to keep a low profile," Hagel said. "I didn’t think I knew enough."
The story of Hagel’s first nine months in office is tempered by the fact that he was hurled crisis after crisis in his first days. Few dispute that he was thrown into the deep end of Defense Department management when, two days after being sworn in, the budget sequester hit. Around the same time, the young, inexperienced leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, began a series of saber rattles, threatening to strike the United States and declaring Washington to be the "sworn enemy of the Korean people," which led to a standoff in the Pacific. Then, during an April trip to the Middle East, Hagel received confirmation that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria had used chemical weapons; Hagel was the one to announce it to the world. That was all in the first weeks of office of a man who thought he needed some spin-up time before he could begin to govern the massive department.
Since then he has had to manage issues like women in combat, the implementation of extending benefits to spouses of gay service members, and the Pentagon’s response
to a concerning rise in sexual assault cases. Meanwhile, he has become the Obama administration’s primary interlocutor with Egyptian leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon — just as relations with both Egypt and Israel have dipped badly.
A portion of the credit he gets for managing those issues stems from the low expectations many on Capitol Hill had of Hagel after his epically awful confirmation hearing. Some former naysayers like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, the California Republican who opposed Hagel’s nomination, have come around. "I was not impressed," McKeon says, recalling that period almost a year ago. Today, McKeon is one of Hagel’s most fervent supporters.
"I have nothing but good things to say," McKeon told FP. "He has a very strong personality but not overwhelmed with his own self-importance," McKeon said. The two agreed to call each other "Buck" and "Chuck" when it’s just the two of them.
Hagel’s aides also point to his management of the recent crisis with China as a highlight. After consultation with White House officials, Hagel directed the Defense Department "first into the breach," sending military jets to shoot through China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in a signal of strength that the United States wouldn’t cow to Beijing’s control of that area. China had at first demanded any noncommercial flights headed into that airspace to submit their flight plans to Beijing first. But after the United States flew jets through the ADIZ without doing that, Beijing appeared to back off its threat to scramble its own jets to escort any such flights.
Defense officials also highlight Hagel’s recent trip to the Persian Gulf, where he reassured partners from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar who are concerned about the negotiations with Iran. "The crown prince told Hagel that the partnership between the U.S. and Saudi are as strong as ever, which is crucial for continued mil-mil coordination," one senior defense official said after the trip by way of showing the kind of work the secretary has been doing quietly. "In Qatar, Hagel inked a renewed defense cooperation agreement, also essential to that relationship."
All this has helped the administration as it seeks to smooth diplomatic relations with other countries, officials say. "He’s the alliance manager for the administration," said another senior official, noting that strong relationships between Hagel and foreign leaders is like a train running on time. "You never get credit for it, but when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong."
Rightly or wrongly, Hagel draws comparisons with those who have come before him. Donald Rumsfeld launched a full-on assault on the ossified Pentagon workforce as soon as he took office in 2001. He crammed down the Defense Department’s collective throat an agenda of high-tech change. After the 9/11 attacks, he elbowed out bureaucratic foes in George W. Bush’s administration and pushed for a light-footprint approach to war. Everyone knew where Rumsfeld stood — even if he became hugely unpopular.
When Rumsfeld wore out his welcome, Robert Gates took over in 2006, driving a simple agenda that animated nearly everything he was there to do: fix the faltering campaign in Iraq. He called himself "the secretary of war." And when he thought generals screwed up, they got fired. Gates wasn’t the ideologue that Rumsfeld was, and a large part of his popularity stemmed from that fact. But his goals were clear. With his vacuum-like memory and learned language of precision, Gates was the E.F. Hutton of that Pentagon era, and everyone leaned in to hear what he had to say.
Gates was followed by Leon Panetta, whose affability, political instincts, and extensive Washington résumé carried him through. And despite traveling home to California nearly every weekend in a sign of what some thought was disengagement, his oversight of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout helped maintain Panetta’s bureaucratic stature.
Hagel, in contrast, has so far had few, if any, signature causes. Although he meets with junior enlisted service members each month, few apparent policy initiatives have resulted. Hagel is also working quietly with Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, as Shinseki attempts to right the VA’s ship, but there, too, it’s been unclear what impact that has had.
Hagel’s critics say that his management style has not been in any way authoritative on other key issues. Take the military’s mounting sexual assault crisis. Case after case popped up dandelion-like this spring, culminating with charges against an Army one-star, Jeffrey Sinclair. While commanding troops in Afghanistan, Sinclair allegedly forced a female officer to perform oral sex on him, threatening her if she told anyone.
Sinclair’s case is part of a wave of such incidents that threaten the reverence the public has for the military. Critics quietly wonder why Hagel hasn’t fired any top leaders — not even Sinclair. Although lower-level officers and others have been reassigned, there have been few high-level examples to signal that Hagel wants accountability on this issue. That draws immediate comparisons with Gates, who developed a reputation for asking senior officials to resign to hold people accountable.
Hagel said that he will fire anyone who does something wrong, but fixing the problem doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as easy as that. "If there is gross negligence somewhere or wrongdoing somewhere, then you get rid of people," Hagel added. "This particular issue, sexual assault, I’m more interested in fixing. I’m more interested in getting a system in place here where there’s accountability, responsibility."
Hagel holds a meeting on sexual assault issues each week to "know where things stand," as one senior defense official put it. "He’s been both decisive and deliberate on this," the official added. "Chuck Hagel is not afraid to make changes. There is no doubt about that — he is moving aggressively and surveying the field for the next ridgeline."
A former aide who is a Hagel supporter says he thinks the sexual assault issue "may not lend itself" to firing individuals unless it’s absolutely warranted. But if it were to be, Hagel "doesn’t let things like that fester," the former aide said. "He’s definitely a ball buster."
It’s not the kind of statement that makes Hagel look any better, given the underwhelming reaction to the sexual assault issue.
On issue after issue, Hagel has been dropped into an unenviable position. He’s the man who must make the Pentagon’s budgetary problems go away, keep peace with Capitol Hill, and manage a White House that is perceived to keep tight control around national security policy issues. Some of those issues that have dominated Hagel’s time — from North Korea to the government shutdown — are now on simmer. Hagel is pausing long enough now to begin assembling his own team at the department and focus on some of the plodding internal work of Pentagon governance that comes with the job.
"The game is slowing down for him," one senior defense official told Foreign Policy.
That lull may also be giving Hagel a chance to put some points on the board. During a trip to Afghanistan this month, Hagel purposely decided not to pay a visit to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with whom the White House is negotiating a frustrating long-term security agreement. The snub — which defense officials say was Hagel’s idea, not the White House’s — was aimed at sending a strong signal to the Afghan leader that the admini
stration had finally lost patience with him. It’s hard to imagine Hagel taking a similar step six months ago. And there have been other signs that Hagel is becoming less cautious: On Friday, the Pentagon announced that a number of states would fully implement the Defense Department’s policy on same-sex benefits, a move that came after Hagel pushed adjutants general to get their states in line with departmental policy.
At the same time, he still struggles with a long-winded, rambling rhetorical style in which he tends to "circle the drain" before getting to the final point. The most recent example came during a press briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, when Hagel was asked about the latest wrinkle of the crisis in Syria. "As I said, there’s a war going on in Syria and it’s devastating to the people, having effects that hurt the people, destabilize the region," he told reporters. "And when the moderate opposition is set back, that’s not good. But that’s what we deal with. So we have to deal with it. We will deal with it. And it is difficult. But we take it straight up, work with the moderate opposition, with our allies in the area, and we’ll continue to do that."
At other times he can find his voice. During a stop in Tokyo during his last trip to Asia, Hagel gave one of the most forceful answers he ever has on a weighty subject — engagement with Iran — since taking office: "Engagement is not appeasement; it’s not surrender; it’s not negotiation," Hagel said, jumping at the chance to take the question as Kerry stood beside him. "I don’t believe that foreign policy is a zero-sum game…. Aren’t we wiser if we can find ways to resolve disputes, recognizing danger, being very clear-eyed, keeping the strongest military in the world, which we have, to protect our interests along with our allies and strong alliances. Aren’t we wiser to pursue engagement?"
In the Pentagon, the mood about Hagel is a mixture of circumspection and wait and see. Some believe he has made inroads with the service secretaries, meeting with them regularly and ensuring they have access to him when they need it. "SecDef weekly staff meetings," typically held on Wednesdays, include Hagel, the chiefs, the service secretaries, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey or Vice Chairman Sandy Winnefeld, and are usually loose affairs with no set agenda, officials say. In those kinds of meetings, Hagel demands that aides be prepared, sometimes grilling them to make sure they’re up to speed — and gaining his own perspective at the same time. One senior aide described Hagel as someone who conducts information triage during meetings, splitting things in the "nice to know," "need to know," and "fluff" categories, and making sure briefers describe issues that will help him make a decision.
Hagel is said to have begun to include the service secretaries in a way that predecessors have not, building a relationship with them as the primary way to understand what’s happening inside each service. His message to them is that he wants their opinion because they’re the ones who know the most about what’s happening in each service, but that he’s also not going to micromanage, said Eric Fanning, who until recently was the acting secretary of the Air Force. Fanning said the meetings are designed to give the secretaries a chance to speak their mind about a range of issues, from macro to micro.
"The agenda is very high-level," said Fanning, who has served in a variety of capacities for four other defense secretaries. "They are not scripted interactions, or overly contrived."
Hagel is known for slipping into Pentagon offices and dropping by on subordinates in the same way he did in press secretary Little’s office when he surprised the temp worker there. On Hagel’s first day, the former sergeant sought out the Army’s top enlisted man, Sgt. Maj. Ray Chandler. Hagel is considered to be at his most comfortable when he is around enlisted service members. Fanning remembers when Hagel promised to help the Air Force celebrate its birthday by stopping by Fanning’s office late one afternoon to meet about 20 assembled airmen from around the Pentagon. "The AF mess quickly made a cake, and Hagel spent 30 minutes with that group, charming the socks off of them," Fanning said.
Those who have had personal dealings with Hagel say that he is far more warm and engaging in person than perhaps he is in public. In a number of one-on-one engagements, individuals described him as smarter and friendlier than he can appear in bigger public settings. He seems at ease with people in smaller groups, working rooms and cracking jokes, whereas during briefings and speeches, he can seem scripted and tight-lipped at the same time.
But Hagel’s relationship with the White House, seen as consolidating power on most national security issues, is still opaque. There has been little in the way of indicators to show the true dynamic between the president and Hagel, and most watchers still remember the image of Hagel, surrounded by men and women in conservative suits and buttoned-up oxfords, appearing in a bright pink polo shirt and tan jacket during an emergency meeting of the National Security Council when the topic was the Syrian strikes.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said that the president puts much stock in what Hagel has to say, especially on issues like Afghanistan. Rhodes told FP, "I think the president puts a lot of stock" in his views, referring to Afghanistan. "He brings fresh eyes to this." But Rhodes said Hagel’s focus will be on internal matters at the Pentagon. "Obviously there are some issues where we are significantly guided by Hagel and the Pentagon in particular on how it relates to budget and health of the force."
Hagel travels to the White House for meetings with Obama typically each week. But the "one-on-ones" are a bit of a misnomer as those meetings typically include Dempsey and other aides. And sometimes Vice President Joe Biden attends, senior defense officials said.
Hagel’s big tests are still before him. He just recently lost his No. 2, Ash Carter, the geeky and deeply knowledgeable deputy secretary of defense, and it will be Hagel’s job to replace him. Although Hagel relied heavily on Carter’s expertise, the two men were not a good mix after Carter was passed over for the job that ultimately went to Hagel. Many fear that Carter’s departure will reveal just how big a role he played in the day-to-day operations of the department and that the aftermath — without the right replacement — could pose enormous challenges across the department. In the interim, Hagel persuaded Christine Fox, who had led a top-to-bottom review of Pentagon resources and spending, to fill in for Carter for the next several months, but it will fall to Hagel to find a permanent deputy.
In January, Hagel will have another major vacancy to fill: the Pentagon’s policy chief, Jim Miller, is also departing. Other senior defense officials will likely follow. And even now there are a number of key political appointments to fill and Hagel’s choices for those key slots will figure prominently in an assessment of Hagel as he moves forward.
Senior defense officials and Hagel himself insist the most important thing he can do in putting people in slots in the Pentagon is to create a team that works well together. "I’ve always believed in strong teams," Hagel said, explaining the concept at length in the interview. "People have to work together."
Some Pentagon watchers wonder how much latitude Hagel will have in picking tha
t team. Perhaps the White House will lean on him to accept the political appointees it deems best for the job, instead. Hagel "definitely has significant ability to choose his own team," Rhodes said. "It will be very clear that Chuck Hagel has a team that he has personally put into place and has confidence in."
The real test may come this winter. That’s when Hagel will unveil his own real budget. Many believe that if he presents a budget that complies with the Budget Control Act, which requires $52 billion in cuts, he will have done the right thing by the department, allowing it to really begin to make the transition from the days of fat spending to thin. But on that, Hagel may be fighting his masters in the White House, who are expected to want the next defense budget to be presented at a higher number that can be used as a negotiating tactic as part of a broader budget negotiation with Congress.
But that could throw the Defense Department into another political pawn game that would once again raise readiness issues across the services and generally be seen as detrimental to a department already trying to grapple with the fundamental transition it is undergoing after 12 years of war. Hagel’s management of this budget will be key to assessing if Hagel is indeed his own man, doing what is best for the department, or if he will be, as some see it, coerced into using the Pentagon budget as a political bargaining chip.
Hagel’s job will be to end the cycle of submitting "fantasy budgets," said the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison, and begin to put the department on the right track by submitting a lower budget that is in compliance with budget caps.
"If he’s going to be a strong leader in DOD, he’ll be able to talk the White House into it, pull it off on the Hill and say we’re not gutting defense, and he’ll get the services on board," Harrison said. "So that’s what I’m looking for, that will be the real indicator of the kind of SecDef he’s going to be."
By all accounts, Hagel has one of the hardest jobs in Washington, one few would agree to take on — and one that few could do well. But that means he has the opportunity to do something, says the former administration official.
"It’s a [difficult] job," the person said, using an expletive to describe the position. "It depends on what you do with it."
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold