Picking Up the Pieces at the Pentagon

Firing Hagel was the easy part. Finding a new Pentagon chief capable of dealing with the Islamic State, a micromanaging White House, and angry Republicans will be far harder.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Barack Obama in late August admitted that he had no "strategy yet" on how to deal with the Islamic State. Obama might say something similar now to explain why Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was pushed out or what the administration hopes to achieve with this change in Pentagon leadership.

President Barack Obama in late August admitted that he had no "strategy yet" on how to deal with the Islamic State. Obama might say something similar now to explain why Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was pushed out or what the administration hopes to achieve with this change in Pentagon leadership.

Although the White House portrayed Hagel’s departure as a usual cabinet change post a midterm election that resulted in Democrats losing their Senate majority, unnamed administration officials have said that Hagel wasn’t up to the task of leading the fight against the militant group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, that now controls broad parts of Iraq and Syria.

The Obama administration’s strategy for countering the Islamic State has lurched from focusing the fight first inside Iraq to figuring out how to expand the battle into Syria, where the militant group is headquartered — and trying to do both without getting involved in replacing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or sending American ground troops into battle. To make matters even thornier, many of America’s allies in the Middle East haven’t fully signed on to the U.S. strategy of focusing primarily on the Islamic State; they’d prefer to see Assad driven from power as well.

Absent clearer direction from the White House, Hagel’s successor could have just as hard a time articulating and carrying out a new strategy, said Andrew Bacevich, an Army veteran and Columbia University professor who has been a fierce critic of the administration’s handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The new secretary will be a caretaker serving a lame-duck president," Bacevich said. "Obama’s efforts to bring an end to an era of permanent war have failed. The rise of ISIS is but one symbol of that failure, but it’s the most visible one."

American military efforts to "fix large parts of the Middle East, now dating back several decades" continue to draw the United States into "a quagmire of its own making," Bacevich added. "The job of Hagel’s replacement will be to manage the quagmire until Obama’s time runs out and a new administration takes office."

Speculation about the next defense chief has centered on Michèle Flournoy, who ran the Pentagon’s policy shop and would be the first woman to hold the position, and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense who also ran the Pentagon’s sprawling acquisitions arm. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, whose name emerged Monday, Nov. 24, as another possible contender, took himself out of the running almost immediately after Hagel announced his resignation.

Flournoy and Carter were both vetted for the top Pentagon job the last time around, in December 2012, before Obama offered the position to Hagel. It’s certainly possible that Obama and his team are also looking at more unconventional or unexpected candidates in the way that President George W. Bush in 2006 bypassed the parlor-game names for Donald Rumsfeld replacements and instead tapped Robert Gates, who had been out of government for years and was president of Texas A&M University.

Irrespective of who’s picked as Hagel’s successor, he or she is likely to face the same issues that bedeviled not only Hagel but his two predecessors as well — White House aides with little national security experience trying to micromanage military campaigns and political advisors keen to ensure that Obama’s promise to end America’s wars isn’t eroded by new military adventures that require potentially open-ended U.S. troop involvement. The new Pentagon chief will also face a Congress fully controlled by Republicans devoted to battering the administration for missteps, real and perceived.

More broadly, Hagel’s successor will need to face the reality that Obama himself is deeply conflicted about how far to go in battling the Islamic State and countering Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. No matter how experienced or good a defense secretary is at the job, he or she will be responsible for implementing policies forged elsewhere. If the White House is indecisive or reverses itself on key decisions, senior cabinet members can get caught in the lurch. That’s precisely what happened in the summer of 2013, when Obama ordered the military to prepare for airstrikes against Assad after the Syrian strongman gassed his own people, only to reverse himself without first telling Hagel.

On paper, both Flournoy and Carter would bring impressive résumés to the post.

Flournoy served twice at the Pentagon — once in the late 1990s during Bill Clinton’s administration and more recently in the Obama administration as the department’s top policy official — its No. 3 post. She was widely respected inside and outside the Pentagon as a sober-minded thinker and manager with a gift for maintaining strong relationships on Capitol Hill and throughout the military.

Still, if Obama is looking for fresh ideas, it’s not clear Flournoy can deliver them. During her time at the Pentagon, Flournoy had close ties to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top brass but was seen as a cautious policymaker reluctant to contemplate high-stakes, high-rewards approaches to thorny issues such as the rise of Islamist extremism in Africa and much of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Flournoy has recently publicly defended the Obama administration’s current strategy against the Islamic State even though it hasn’t prevented the group from continuing to make territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria.

Arguing that Syrian rebels must supplement American air raids to stop the Islamic State, Flournoy told NPR in September that getting such a force "on the Syrian side of the border" is going "to take months, if not years."

Echoing what several Pentagon and White House officials have said, Flournoy added that "on the Iraqi side of the border, I think you’re likely to see results sooner. You have units of the Iraqi Army that I think will be reconstituted with our special operations forces advising and training them. You will see the formation of some Sunni national guard units to be able to work in the Sunni areas."

Still, Flournoy often has held her own among other administration officials, and if offered the top Pentagon job, she would negotiate for more freedom, said Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University, a former advisor to Flournoy, and an FP contributing editor.

"I think she’s the best-qualified person for the job, but I don’t know that she would be interested in the position unless she gets assurances from the White House that she’ll have the independence to exercise her judgment because no one wants to be the designated doormat." Brooks said.

In between her two Pentagon stints, Flournoy co-founded the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a centrist think tank, which became a sort of prep school for Obama administration national security hires.

When she left the Pentagon in 2012, she campaigned for Obama’s second term — a fact that GOP lawmakers may try to use against her during potential confirmation hearings — before joining the Boston Consulting Group as an advisor. She recently returned to run CNAS, and in October, Obama named her to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of outside experts who advise the president on intelligence matters. Hagel served on the board before becoming the defense secretary as well.

Flournoy is widely respected among both Republicans and Democrats. In late 2012, as Obama was debating who would replace then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, prominent conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol endorsed Flournoy to head the Pentagon. A top GOP Senate aide said at the time that he thought she would be confirmed by a 100-0 vote.

Flournoy also is seen as more hawkish on the use of American military power than Hagel, who in turn is seen as closely aligned with Obama’s own caution about getting the United States involved in potentially open-ended conflicts.

In 2009, when the Obama administration debated how large of a surge force to send to Afghanistan, Flournoy argued for a bigger one that would remain longer than the White House wanted, according to Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward. That put her in line with the thinking of the nation’s top military officers, a source of unease for some administration officials, who worried that she was too close to the Pentagon’s brass and would be unable, or unwilling, to order those in the brass to fall in line with White House decisions they opposed.

Carter, the other top contender, has held three Pentagon posts: nuclear arms reduction expert in the Clinton administration, top weapons buyer for the Defense Department in Obama’s first term, and, starting in October 2011, deputy defense secretary.

A nuclear scientist who later became a Harvard University professor, Carter came to be known as an expert in managing the Pentagon’s labyrinthine weapons-buying process. After runaway costs threatened to implode acquisition budgets even as overall defense spending was starting to decline, Carter tried to hold the line by shifting more burdens onto the defense industry. In the 1990s, he co-led the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group with former CIA Director John Deutch; the group was one of the first to call attention to the risk of militant attacks from extremists outside the country.

When Obama bypassed Carter and Flournoy in 2012 to pick Hagel, he was getting what he wanted: a former senator with deep international experience and a war veteran who was skeptical about the efficacy of achieving long-term gains with American military power.

Even Hagel’s detractors in the Senate, many of whom didn’t vote to confirm him, said the administration’s muddled strategy for confronting the Islamic State reflected the president’s own uncertainty and shifting thoughts about what to do and wasn’t entirely Hagel’s fault.

"While I did not support Secretary Hagel for this position, ultimately, the buck stops with the president," stated Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "It is the president who has failed to communicate a serious national security strategy or set conditions that would have allowed Hagel to succeed at the Pentagon."

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has been one of Hagel’s toughest critics and is slated to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that the defense chief "was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process," as well as "excessive micro-management" on the part of the White House.

"[U]ltimately, the President needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his Administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them," the onetime GOP presidential nominee who lost to Obama in 2008 added.

If McCain’s comments were correct, Hagel would be only the latest of Obama’s defense secretaries to complain of White House nitpicking.

"It was micromanagement that drove me crazy," Gates said Nov. 16 at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. White House officials sometimes called top U.S. generals about strategy and tactics as well as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees American commando operations, Gates added, according to Military.com. "I told JSOC if they got a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me."

Panetta leveled similar criticism in his book Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace.

Hagel, 68, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former Republican senator from Nebraska, joined the Obama administration in February 2013 mostly to oversee an end to the war in Afghanistan and manage the U.S. strategic "pivot" to Asia, even as Congress had set a course to slash $500 billion from the Pentagon’s projected budgets over the next decade.

Among Hagel’s top priorities was shrinking the U.S. Army to its pre-9/11 size as well as eliminating aging weapons such as the Air Force’s A-10 airplane.

In his first budget presentation in February 2013, Hagel said his recommendations favored a "smaller and more capable force — putting a premium on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries."

Although those budget choices earned Hagel some enemies inside the Pentagon and among congressional backers of weapons programs, his challenges multiplied as the civil war in Syria against Assad grew worse and the regime began using chemical weapons against rebels, potentially triggering American military action as Obama had threatened in August 2012.

At a hastily convened news conference at a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi at the end of a five-day visit to the region in April 2013, Hagel beat the White House in announcing that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons.

But it was less than a flawless news conference for Hagel and his aides, who were forced to hold a separate briefing for reporters to explain what he meant to say. Hagel — accustomed to smaller audiences as a U.S. senator — found the global spotlight unnerving, and his comments and remarks sometimes were mangled.

He survived a brutal confirmation hearing in January 2013 with senators from both parties questioning his stance on Israel as well as his views on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Hagel did hurt his own cause at times, misstating the Obama administration’s policy on Iran as one of "containment," for example. He was confirmed by a fairly narrow 58-41 margin.

With Hagel largely focused on internal Pentagon management and frequent trips to Asia, the hard tasks of handling the multiple crises in the Middle East — including the Syrian civil war and the chaos in Iraq — fell to Secretary of State John Kerry, another former senator with whom he had served. White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice made one unsuccessful trip to Kabul to persuade then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States — a task some thought should have been carried out by Hagel.

Hagel also faced other challenges ranging from transferring detainees out of the prison at Guantánamo Bay to the rise of the Islamic State to how to best manage the ongoing drawdown from Afghanistan to how many troops to send to Africa to help fight the Ebola outbreak.

"If you look at the substance of Hagel’s term, he has been successful in tackling extremely difficult subjects, including sexual harassment in the military, nuclear force modernization, strategic management review, and ethical behavior standards," said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chief executive officer of the Punaro Group, a defense consulting firm in Virginia. Punaro, who previously served as the staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among those who helped Hagel prepare for his confirmation hearing.

Although Hagel’s aides said he was effective in one-on-one meetings with world leaders, his public performances lacked focus and were often dull, especially compared with those of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with whom the defense secretary often appeared.

Some in Washington accused Hagel of not forcefully advocating strategic issues. Yet, he contradicted the White House’s public line about the Islamic State by describing it as an unprecedented threat, just as the administration was likening the militants to a junior varsity basketball team.

Despite criticism that he was not the man for the moment, Hagel’s aides said that he wrote a memo — the contents of which they won’t divulge — to Rice criticizing the administration’s policy on Syria, which has largely failed to halt the Islamic State’s advances.

Beyond alleged failures in countering the Islamic State, the White House has been widely criticized for not punishing Assad after he used chemical weapons against his own people, despite Obama’s threat to do so.

Some civilian employees of the Defense Department have complained about Hagel’s management style: He’s short-tempered; he doesn’t listen or sit through elaborate decks of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations — a holy grail in the corridors of the Pentagon; he hasn’t left a stamp on the building, unlike some of his predecessors, including Gates and Rumsfeld. Those complaints and gripes earned him the moniker "invisible man."

As for civil-military relations, Hagel’s brief tenure would hold up to scrutiny, said Richard Kohn, an emeritus professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and an expert on civil-military issues.

Hagel managed to get the Pentagon to accept budget cuts imposed by Congress even as the military faced new conflicts, Kohn said. Hagel also had to deal with a "hyperpartisan and hypercritical Congress without the normal Democratic leadership to help him," Kohn added. With no Democratic senators to push back strongly on McCain’s often acerbic attacks, Hagel was left to defend himself, he said.

Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.