Stuck in the Shadows at the Pentagon

Chuck Hagel was always being upstaged by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next secretary of defense will have to change that equation.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

When President Barack Obama was wavering about whether to start bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq in early August, the Pentagon official who made the final argument in favor of the strikes was Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, not Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. When the administration needed to sell those strikes on Capitol Hill and when the White House war cabinet met to discuss the course of the campaign, Dempsey was also clearer and more forceful than Hagel.

Hagel has a warm personal relationship with Dempsey, who took over as the United States’ top uniformed military official in 2011, and aides to both men say the general has never tried to intentionally overshadow his boss.

But the White House’s decision to abruptly fire Hagel this week highlights the facts that Dempsey overshadowed his boss all the same and that the 62-year-old Army general often appeared to be more in sync with the White House — and more trusted by key administration policymakers — than the defense secretary himself.

“When you match a military officer, a West Point graduate, with more than 40 years of experience, groomed in strategic affairs, and who has served in Iraq, against anyone with lesser experience, it presents a potentially challenging dynamic” with the chairman appearing to overshadow the secretary, one senior U.S. official said.

Indeed, Dempsey’s public comments often appeared to be a barometer of the administration’s policy, such as when he opened the door to a heavier U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIL and ISIS) at a Sept. 16 congressional hearing. The president has told me “to come back to him on a case-by-case basis,” Dempsey said. “If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”

Still, Dempsey is “not looking to use sharp elbows internally for personal benefit,” said Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. “He’s someone looking to tell it straight for the country and he’ll do so in a way that’s very collaborative, and so I think the absolute last thing on his mind would be ‘How can I trump civilian leaders?'”

Whoever succeeds Hagel will need to take on a public role that Hagel seemed uncomfortable performing while also being more forceful and direct during internal White House meetings. The new defense secretary will also have to maintain a strong relationship with both Dempsey and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, many of whom are already uneasy with the White House’s budget cuts and uncertain strategy for combating the Islamic State.

Hagel’s tenure at the Defense Department began with a bruising confirmation battle and ended with aides at the White House National Security Council concluding that he was a lightweight. Two people close to Hagel, though, said the administration’s decision to oust him was instead an attempt to silence an internal critic who sent a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice arguing that the administration’s Syria policy wasn’t working and another memo, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, calling for tougher action against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hagel’s performance in contrast to Dempsey’s stems, in part, from the tensions inherent to the relationship between any defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman.

Unlike the State Department, where the secretary of state is the top official who speaks for the department and directly reports to the president, the presence of two powerful figures at the Pentagon, each with his own defined role, has often meant a struggle for the spotlight and the public eye.

While the defense secretary is responsible for running the Pentagon and oversees all its employees, including military personnel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has purely an advisory job with no executive authority to command combatant forces or run the department’s day-to-day operations. At the same time, the chairman is legally required to provide an independent assessment of the country’s security needs to Congress.

Different combinations of defense secretaries and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have tilted that balance in the public realm either in favor of the civilian chief or in favor of the top military official.

During George W. Bush’s administration, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “was the only guy in the room, and all the attention was on him” during joint appearances with the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, according to a current senior U.S. defense official who served in the Pentagon at the time.

The most pronounced clash between a defense secretary and the top military official in recent years played out during George H.W. Bush’s administration when Dick Cheney and Army Gen. Colin Powell shared a podium.

At one point, Cheney went behind Powell’s back to get the Navy and the Air Force to come up with strike targets in Iraq during the Gulf War, infuriating Powell, according to Bob Woodward’s book The Commanders.

In the most recent setup, Dempsey’s high-profile appearances on Capitol Hill — where he routinely stole the limelight from Hagel and left the defense chief largely sitting by silently — didn’t prevent him from receiving fierce criticism from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Last year, McCain tried to block Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as chairman. Dempsey’s term runs out in September 2015.

That paled in comparison with McCain’s denunciation of Dempsey this past June after the general expressed support for the Obama administration’s decision to swap Taliban figures held at Guantánamo Bay for American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl, who is widely thought to have intentionally deserted his post in eastern Afghanistan. Dempsey, McCain thundered, was “the most political chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that I have ever seen in all the years I have been dealing with these people.” The general’s backing of the prisoner deal was “another example of, to me, unacceptable conduct,” McCain said.

Whoever replaces Hagel will face an array of both long-term and more-immediate challenges, including building relationships with both Dempsey and the general’s eventual successor.

“For the next secretary of defense, force posture in the next five years, American military deployments, what’s the long-term military footprint in the Middle East going to look like with ISIS,” and how Iran behaves in the next few years — “those will be the big long-term challenges,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security.

Although the short-term questions of how to handle the threats from Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State are the top-most issues, “frankly there are no good options,” Goldenberg said. The Obama administration waited too long to act and there aren’t too many new alternatives left to pursue, said Goldenberg, who previously served in policy roles at the Pentagon and the State Department and with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, faces the challenge of finding a replacement for Hagel after two of the three most mentioned candidates withdrew themselves from consideration.

Just hours after Hagel’s ouster, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army Ranger officer, said he was not interested in the job. On Tuesday, Nov. 25, Michèle Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security and a former top Pentagon official who’s close to Obama, dropped out, citing family concerns. Her decision was first reported by Foreign Policy.

Other names known to be under consideration include Ashton Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense, and Jeh Johnson, the current head of the Department of Homeland Security and the former general counsel at the Pentagon.

Whoever is chosen, it’s increasingly likely that the candidate will go through a tough confirmation hearing, with Republican leaders in the Senate using the confirmation process as a tool to criticize Obama’s foreign policy.

“The country needs a confirmed secretary of defense in a hurry, and whoever gets nominated will have a tough confirmation with plenty of political cheap shots,” said Vikram Singh, the vice president for national security issues at the Center for American Progress and a former Pentagon official who oversaw Asia policy.

 Twitter: @g_ratnam

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