When President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense following the 2012 election, I wrote that he did so for the same reason that Harry Truman tapped Louis Johnson to replace James Forrestal in 1949: to take an axe to the defense budget. As Truman’s hatchet man at the Pentagon, Johnson had the job of implementing the president’s commitment to drastic defense cuts for their own sake, independent of the threat environment. Truman saw the defense budget as what was left over after subtracting the cost of domestic programs from total government tax receipts. I wrote that President Obama envisioned the same role for Hagel.
But there was another imperative at work as well. Obama fully intended to centralize all policymaking — including national security and defense policymaking — in the White House. There was no longer room for a strong, independent secretary of defense such as Robert Gates. Like many observers at the time, I believed that Hagel was not qualified for the job, either as a manager of the massive Pentagon bureaucracy or, more importantly, a strategic thinker.
The president’s desire to centralize defense planning in the White House first became apparent with his treatment of Marine General James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command. Right after the 2012 election, the White House announced that General Mattis would be leaving his post in March 2013, well short of what would be expected of a combatant commander who had acquitted himself well in the position. More disgracefully, the White house did not have the courtesy to inform Mattis before making the announcement.
At the time, this action did not seem to make any sense. But with the announcement of Hagel’s nomination, the pattern fell into place. Before the election, Obama needed Mattis for cover, given the volatility of the Middle East. If something happened in the region, he would have a competent general to handle the situation. But after the election, the president no longer needed the virtues that Mattis brought to the table.
The combination of President Obama’s nomination of Hagel to be secretary of defense — to be his hatchet man to slash the defense budget without regard to geopolitical realities — and the early retirement of a general renowned for a powerful blend of strategic sense and candor, meant that the White House believed that the world was safe enough to make its own decisions about national security without the input of people such as Mattis.
But the president was hoist on his own petard. Putin, China, Iran, and the emergence of ISIS confounded Obama’s vision for a second term free of national-security distractions. A secretary of defense chosen to wield the budget axe was not what was needed as Obama’s plan for a pacific second term turned to ashes.
Of course, a president has every right to choose the secretary of defense or the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the secretaries of defense and the generals he deserves. By pushing Mattis overboard and nominating Hagel as secretary of defense, the administration sent the message that it didn’t want smart, independently minded secretaries of defense or generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders.
So what does the president do now that his plan for centralizing national security and defense policymaking has backfired? It would seem to be in his best interest to choose a strong successor to Hagel. He needs to choose someone who will give him the sort of political cover that the likes of Gates and Mattis provided during his first term.
There are some very qualified candidates, including two who were passed over in favor of Hagel. The first is Ash Carter; the second is Michele Flournoy. Either would make a fine secretary of defense. And of course the president could take credit for nominating the first female secretary of defense in the history of the United States. Fortunately for the United States, if Obama were to choose Flournoy, it would be her competence, not her sex, that would make her a good choice.
My own preference is Bob Work, the current deputy secretary of defense, the person who is really running the building. Bob, a retired Marine colonel and deep strategic thinker, is perfect for the job. In any event, for the sake of the country, let us hope that President Obama does not repeat the mistake of nominating someone as secretary of defense who is not up to the job.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He recently retired as a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.