The expected public apotheosis of soon-to-depart defense secretary Chuck Hagel has begun, with the man many now calling a “scapegoat” receiving praise from those who recently derided him in public or private. Even as Washington engages in this strangely touching and humanistic rite, D.C.-watchers are already handicapping his potential successor. Anthropologically speaking, the candidates will come from one of two species: homo politicus or homo bureaucraticus. Those who expect Obama to appoint someone on the left with views of the military similar to his own are betting on a political choice, such as former senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island. A more centrist, if not right wing, defense choice from the political side would be former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Getting a big name from the political world to pick up the pieces of the collapsing Obama foreign and security policy, though, may not be easy. Few politicians like to come in on the shovel brigade during the waning days of any administration.
The D.C. policy establishment, on the other hand, seems to be betting on a bureaucrat. This is not surprising, given that most of the pundits are from this species, and thus both most familiar with and hopeful for the selection of one of their own. The three names emerging early in the top running are former under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy, founder and chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a D.C. think tank; former deputy secretary of defense Ashton Carter; and current deputy secretary of defense Robert Work. Also in the mix is John Hamre, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a longtime D.C. player as well as former deputy secretary of defense.
What is interesting about these four is that they are not weak personalities, nor individuals who would agree to be sidelined the way that Hagel appeared to be. They would salute and carry out the president’s orders, of course, but those who know them expect they would be active voices in national-security decision making for the last two years of Obama’s term. That may be where the parochial interests of homo bureaucraticus blind them to a more accurate appreciation of the odds of such an individual being appointed by a White House that seems to avoid precisely such powerful individuals outside the president’s inner circle.
Choosing any of those listed above, or Lieberman, for that matter, would fly in the face of much criticism, both from Democrats and Republicans, of Obama’s perceived increasing isolation, tone deafness, and even “bunker” mentality. The best recent example of such thinking is a long, controversial article in The New Republic on the outsized and unprecedented power of senior advisor Valerie Jarrett on matters both domestic and foreign.
The rap on Obama for wanting to be the smartest person in the room (or thinking himself so) would have to be rethought if Lieberman, Flournoy, Carter, Work, or Hamre were chosen to lead the Pentagon. Each would garner major bipartisan support, be respected intellectually, and listened to with a seriousness not evident since Leon Panetta left the building. Given the drift and uncertainty over policy toward Russia, the Islamic State, and Iran, the next secretary of defense will be no placeholder in a lame-duck administration, but rather a crucial player in an environment of mounting threats.
Yet not everyone is convinced the West Wing will welcome such a challenge to its cocoon. One well-placed Democratic insider told me with reference to Flournoy, “She’d be a terrific candidate, but I think they are likely going in a different direction.” That would be a missed opportunity, and would open the doors to criticism of the next secretary of defense as biting as that which helped undermine Chuck Hagel.