US Defense – Pentagon – All Change Please!

With policy disagreements being blamed by some it seems to me politically callous, just weeks after losing control of Congress and with his back now against the wall, that President Obama should choose now as the moment to dump Chuck Hagel as Secretary of State for Defense after just two years in post as the third person to hold the post in the six-years of the Obama administration so far.

Quiet, unassuming and rather different to his predecessor, former CIA Director and the only Democrat Secretary of State for Defense in the Obama administrations, Leon Panetta and who walked out of post after two years later blaming President Obama for failing to leave troops in Iraq after 2011 and for dithering as opposed to acting in Syria, it appears that failure to agree on policy may lie at the heart of the decision to encourage the present incumbent to depart. Was he sacked or did he resign – I think I’ll probably choose the former although it might well have been a case of half and half.

I can have little idea who President Obama will choose to nominate as a potential successor for Hagel although names in the hat being banded around include Michele Flournoy, a former under-secretary of defense and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defence are two suggestions going the rounds. Whatever, they can expect to face a tough time at the various hearings they will need to face in Congress. Pity the name of Ken Krieg hasn’t been mentioned yet by the way.

US handling of the Syria crisis under Obama and Hagel has, dependent on your view, left much to be desired although that said it is rather difficult to work out whether the weakness, delay and indecision of what to do was at the behest of the White House or the Pentagon. That wouldn’t have happened during the term of Robert Gates as Secretary of State Defense during his term in this great office during the period 2007 to 2011 and who surprisingly if pleasingly President Obama chose to retain in post after winning his first term in office. Gates did well which is more than some might say about those that followed. To be fair, Chuck Hagel struggled from the start not because he wasn’t up to the job but most probably because he was perceived as a poor choice by some and then given a rough ride during the confirmation hearings in 2013.

While Hagel’s predecessor Leon Panetta had the very difficult job of making hard choices as he fought to reduce the cost of US defense by $400 billion over the following ten years whilst at the same time attempting to ensure that there was sufficient capability and strength to ensure that US forces could continue to fight wherever they were required it was to Hagel that new conflict decisions would fall. While President Obama would have preferred to turn his back on the potential for future Middle East conflict and engagement it seems to me that with hindsight Hagel is in part being asked to carry the can for Obama failure to act swiftly enough on Syria.

The unexpected news, indeed shock of Hagel’s impending departure is backed up in part by a speech that he delivered just two weeks ago to the CSIS Global Security Forum in which he said “as  we go forward into a historically unpredictable world, we will need to place more of an emphasis on our civilian instruments of power, while adapting our military so that it remains strong, capable, second-to-none, and relevant in the face of threats markedly different from what shaped it during the Cold War and over the past two decades”. This did not sound like a speech of a man digging his own political grave.

Hagel went on to say that at the CSIS forum that “America’s hard power will always be critical to fashioning enduring solutions to global problems.  But our success ultimately depends not on any one instrument of power.  It depends on all of our instruments of power working together.  And it depends not only on how well we maintain and fund all of our instruments of power – but how well they are balanced and integrated with each other” and that leaders and strategists, including here at CSIS, have been arguing for this kind of shift for several years”.

Those are words that you would probably never have heard from the lips of Robert Gates and they concur with the huge change that has occurred in US foreign and defense policy over the past few years. While Obama has been fortunate to have in Hillary Clinton followed by John Kerry two excellent Secretary of State his chosen candidates for Secretary of State for Defense have not it seems been instrumental in challenging defense attitudes and policy.

Nevertheless the legacy that Hagel leaves his successor will need to remain based on the principles of mix of budget constraints and change. Outlining institutional reform following decades of budget growth as a first of six priorities Hagel told the CSIS conference this month that revaluation of the military force planning construct, preparing for prolonged military readiness effect at the same time as sequestration in banging on the door, protecting investments in emerging military capabilities, especially special ops, cyber and C4ISR, achieving both balance and capacity and capability mix between the service elements  good mix between the services, between active and reserve forces and both conventional and unconventional forms of equipment capability and for personnel and compensation policy .

It was a great speech and not one that would have come from someone who thought he might be about to depart. That is politics of course and who knows, we may be better for the change in US defense pilot when it comes. I would of course much rather that the choice of next Secretary of State for Defense could, as Robert Gates had done, come with 26 years spent in the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council where he would later become Director of Central Intelligence and from where he would at some later point replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of State for Defense in January 2007. We await with baited breathe news of the chosen successor!

CHW (London – 24th November 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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