Jacob Parakilas
Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme
Replacing the defense secretary might be more difficult than the White House anticipates.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel walks down the Pentagon steps on 24 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel walks down the Pentagon steps on 24 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

The announcement earlier this week that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would be leaving his post was something of a surprise, because it represents a gamble on the part of a normally cautious White House. President Barack Obama’s team is betting that replacing its third defense secretary at a time of multiple foreign crises and domestic political discord will allow it to refocus and reclaim its security policy as it enters its final stretch.

Hagel’s career as secretary of defense never quite lived up to his promise. A Vietnam veteran and iconoclastic Republican senator from Nebraska, he was mentioned as a likely cabinet pick by both parties during the 2008 election. But his eventual nomination, in 2013, was a shambles: grilled by Republicans, including his putative ally and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain, he stumbled repeatedly while answering questions, failing to display or win confidence.

Matters hardly improved when he took up his post. To be fair to Hagel, the deck was stacked against him from the start. He took office just as mandatory defence spending cuts were taking place, meaning that essentially any decision he made about priorities would anger at least one major constituency within the security establishment. Nor did the world cooperate with the Pentagon’s scaled-down budget; within a year, the US found itself trying to manage simultaneous crises in Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea, Iraq and elsewhere.

But Hagel also lacked the deft political touch of his predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. Both Gates and Panetta managed to command bi-partisan respect even in nearly fratricidal times, but both criticized White House micromanagement of national security after their retirements. Hagel, in contrast, did not manage to build a particularly strong constituency on either side of the aisle during his tenure. Nor did he make it up with a particularly effective working relationship with the White House. He and Obama had worked closely together on foreign policy issues in the Senate, drawn together by their shared opposition to much of George W Bush’s foreign policy. But coming into the Obama national security team from the outside, Hagel found himself crowded out by more established figures who sat closer to the president, such as National Security Advisor Susan Rice and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

To be clear, this was not an amicable departure. Speaking anonymously through friendly journalists, Hagel’s camp decried the president’s lack of discipline and overarching strategy; Obama’s staff used the same medium to put out the message that Hagel wasn’t capable of doing the job. This cross-Potomac infighting had been ongoing for some time, so while his departure was sudden and unanticipated, it is not in retrospect particularly surprising.

In pushing Hagel out, the White House is trying to signal that it understands that its security policies need a shake-up. But the timing of the announcement is not ideal for the administration. Obama’s post-election executive actions on climate change and immigration demonstrated that he was prepared to proceed with his own agenda by going around Congress. Unsurprisingly, that message has proved an unpopular one among Republicans.

A confirmation process for secretary of defense provides them with an ideal opportunity to counter-attack—especially as security policy is an area where the administration has been widely criticised. But there are potential dangers for them as well. Blocking a nomination for a critical, public role like secretary of defense at a time when the United States is heavily engaged abroad would be a poor tactic at a time when the party is trying to build up momentum towards the 2016 elections.

This is likely the administration’s calculation: that it can put someone it perceives as a better fit into a key cabinet post while appearing to offer a valuable concession to the opposition party. But the strategy depends on finding the right nominee to replace Hagel, which may prove more difficult than the White House anticipates.

President Obama has historically picked many of his high profile cabinet officers from the Senate, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Hagel himself. But as Hagel’s confirmation hearings showed, picking a nominee from the ranks of senators is no guarantee of an easy process. To be sure, President Obama might pick retiring Senator Carl Levin, the Armed Services Committee chairman, or sitting Senator Jack Reed, who has been previously considered for the role, but both have already publicly indicated their lack of interest. (Levin is retiring after nearly 40 years and Reed was just re-elected to another six-year term.) Rather, the nominee is more likely to come from a technocratic background with significant experience within the defence establishment itself.

The most likely possibilities include former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and current Deputy Secretary Robert Work. Carter had been considered for secretary in 2013 but passed over in favour of Hagel and might resent being seen as the second choice; nevertheless, he is the most frequently mentioned potential candidate. Mabus and Work both have strong resumes and are widely respected, but both have been administration stalwarts and might be painted as yes-men during confirmation hearings.

The bigger question is who would accept the nomination. Beyond the certainty of a bruising confirmation process with no guarantee of success, serving as defense secretary for the two final years of an administration is seen as a caretaker role rather than a career-maker. That last consideration will weigh heavily in the mind of any potential nominee who has their eye on the job under a future president and does not wish to complicate matters by becoming too closely affiliated with the current one.

The White House knows all these things. Consequently, their willingness to proceed represents both the strength of their desire to replace Hagel and their willingness to gamble that they can find a consummate technocrat with immense political skills willing to take a thankless job at a bad time. But in this situation, he is not the only one taking a risk. The Republicans will be gambling that they can use confirmation hearings to score points against the president’s security policies without appearing to prioritise politics over national security. And the nominee will be gambling that they could have a positive impact on American defense policy at such a complicated and pessimistic time.

But the greatest difficulty of all in filling the post may have been succinctly put by Robert Gates, who during his tenure wrote to a friend: 'People have no idea how much I detest this job.'

This article was originally published by Prospect.

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