The Corner

Why Obama Is Finding It Hard to Get a New Defense Secretary

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s dismissal was so sudden that President Obama didn’t have a replacement ready when the two men went before the cameras on Monday. Yesterday, the search for that replacement became more complicated when Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official viewed as the front-runner, took herself out of contention for the Cabinet post. Flournoy had previously served as undersecretary of Defense for policy from 2009 to 2012, and had been seen as a candidate to become the first female defense secretary.

Another often-touted possibility for defense secretary is Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, but he’s staying put too. Why the unwillingness to take the top Pentagon job? Too many people view it as a job not worth having in an atmosphere where the White House micromanages everything.

It’s well known after Secretary Hagel’s clashes with White House staff that anyone who takes the Pentagon job will be butting heads with Susan Rice, the National Security Council adviser who exercises an iron grip on key aspects of foreign policy. Not to mention Valerie Jarrett, the influential presidential counselor who seems to have both hands in every pie at the White House. “Why should anyone put up with those headaches and not even have full command of your department?” asks one leading Democratic defense analyst I spoke with. He said the White House’s need to micromanage the national-security apparatus is notorious in Washington.

Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and senior member of Obama’s 2008 campaign team, told Defense News that “there’s no doubt” Obama and the White House have a trust deficit with the Pentagon and other security agencies. 

“I think that hurts policymaking,” Korb said. “I really do. I think Obama probably was dumbfounded when he came into office . . . that everyone in the government didn’t do what he wanted right away. . . . So the reaction is to look for Obama loyalists.”

Defense News also interviewed Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state and now vice president of the Wilson Center. He said Obama “dominates [and] doesn’t delegate. . . . [Obama] is probably the most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon.”

The problem is that Obama shows no signs of having Nixon’s skill in foreign policy. As his policies fail to produce the results he seeks, Obama’s instinct is to listen to loyal White House aides and push away dissenting voices. Hagel is the third defense secretary to suffer that fate.  

Robert Gates and Leon Panetta “didn’t toe the party line, so the White House people weren’t happy,” Korb tells Defense News. “So pushed out is what they got. Now, this is what Hagel got, too.”

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