A Change in Pentagon Leadership and the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy

After less than two years as Secretary for Defense, Chuck Hagel resigned and caused a media frenzy of speculation. Giacomo Grechi looks at the reasons behind the decision, and the direction his successor will take US foreign policy.

On November 24, 2014 the defense community and political commentators were incredulous as Charles Hagel, U.S. President Barack Obama’s third Secretary of Defense, submitted his resignation.  The media instantly began searching for explanations and, perhaps more importantly, a successor.  The move on Obama’s behalf has been widely analyzed and critiqued, many saying that Hagel was too silent and weak when presented with difficult decisions.  Others have suggested the secretary represented an easy target to remove in order to appease critics and assure a leadership change as the White House faces a myriad of international military and foreign relations crises in Syria, Iraq, and Eastern Europe.  Whatever the motivation behind the resignation, the move will have lasting and profound effects on the Pentagon leadership as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was nominated, on Obama’s foreign policy decisions as he increases combat operations against the Islamic State and on power dynamics within the President’s closed circle of trusted advisors.

In order to fully understand the implications of the Pentagon’s leadership change and its long lasting effects, it is crucial to place these events in context.  It is of particular importance to examine Hagel’s career, both as Senator and Secretary of Defense as it might offer evidence with which to judge his upcoming departure from the Administration.  Hagel occupied various posts in the Senate, ranging from the Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Rules and Administration.  More recently, as Secretary of Defense he was involved in a number of foreign crises and conflicts.  When faced with the accounts of chemical weapons being deployed and employed in Syria he stated to the BBC that the Department of Defense was ‘ready to go’.  Hagel also spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center about the disparities in NATO spending on behalf of the Treaty’s members and how the ‘lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability – and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security…’  These positions and excerpts show a well-rounded and strong Republican senator as well as an adept and outspoken Secretary.  However, faced with the various global crises, Hagel was not able to halt his imminent departure.

With Hagel’s background examined, it is opportune to analyze the various crises that the Obama administration if facing in order to understand the future course of US foreign policy.  Essentially, the White House is focused on three areas of importance.  Unsurprisingly the first and second are the North-African and Middle-Eastern regions while the second is the Eastern European area.  In North Africa, Obama is facing the results of the 2010 Arab Spring and the following attempts to create strong democratic governments in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.  In the Middle-East the administration is faced with long-standing issues and conflicts in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and the Israel-Palestinian region.  These crises required strong, unified leadership between the Pentagon and the White House in order to support and protect US interests and human rights.

Many pundits, journalists and commentators have offered explanations for Hagel’s resignation.  Essentially, Hagel’s dismissal was a result of many different factors.  Firstly, speculation sought to explain the dismissal as a result of the Democratic Party’s loss and, consequently, Obama’s loss during the midterm elections.  Steve LeVine, a Washington correspondent for Quartz wrote that Hagel was not as high priority as were national security advisor Susan Rice, chief of staff Denis McDonough, or Secretary of State John Kerry.  Therefore, he was ‘the perfect fall guy.’  However, this explanation is not completely satisfactory as it does not explain why a senior official was required to be relieved of their position at all given he or she was performing to standard.  It is important to examine how Hagel interacted in staff meetings and briefings and with the press.

As Secretary of Defense Hagel was required to voice a strong opinion on foreign operations and to enter into dialogue with the President’s other advisors and aides as well as the press.  The New York Times has suggested the contrary.  Peter Baker, the Times’ White House correspondent, reported that Hagel ‘was quiet in Situation Room deliberations’ and was considered ‘passive’ by the President.  Therefore, Hagel’s inactiveness along with tumultuous domestic politics begins to reveal the motivations for his dismissal.

In addition to his meekness in the Situation Room, Hagel was seen as a ‘captive of the generals.’  This speaks volumes as the New York Times also reports that Obama and Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, have grown closer.  Obama supposedly passed Hagel and began speaking directly with Dempsey.  The latter has ‘won the confidence of Mr. Obama’ as he recommended action against the Islamic State.  Thus Hagel was not only quiet but also distanced himself from Obama and was ‘overshadowed’ by other officials.

Hagel not only faced tumultuous relations within the administration but also was confronted by strong criticism in the press.  He was described as having difficulty in expressing a united, coherent foreign policy at crucial moments.  Some have suggested this is partly due to President Obama’s supposed lack of unified approach or position in dealing with foreign problems.  Regardless, Hagel’s troubles with the press only contributed to the likeliness of his dismissal.

The final and perhaps most important reason for Hagel’s removal was his inability to enter Obama’s close circle of trusted advisors.  Much has been written on Obama’s personal advisors, especially on Valerie Jarret, who is now the head of the group.  Hagel was not unlike Kerry in this respect, however while the latter was perceived both by the public and the President as expending good effort on difficult issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian question and joint nuclear talks with Iran, the former was not.  Essentially, Hagel was not among the President’s highly valued advisors and was thus an expendable player, somewhat supporting LeVine’s argument.

Commentators and pundits have all but ruled out that Hagel’s departure was voluntary.  This would have seemed perhaps the first choice for an explanation but it has been given little attention.  The New Yorker reports that Hagel’s statement about his voluntary resignation ‘contradicts recent statements by Hagel’s aides, who said that he intended to serve a full four years…’

Having analyzed the various explanations for Hagel’s sudden departure, it is crucial to examine what this change holds for the future of Pentagon leadership.  Ashton Carter has been tapped as the nominee for Secretary of Defense.  There are a few reasons underpinning Obama’s choice, beginning with his general popularity with Republicans, especially those on select Senate committees.  Proof of this can be found with Senator Jim Inhofe, top G.O.P. member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.  This is important as Hagel’s trouble in the nomination process set him back almost immediately after he was confirmed.  Thus, Carter ought to pass through the process relatively unscathed and should be ready to address pressing issues.

Carter’s ascension to power could mean more reform, especially in terms of budget restriction.  It is foreseeable that current economic conditions and gridlock in Congress will continue through the next fiscal year as Republicans now hold control of the Senate and House.  This in turn would result in a prolonged sequestration and ultimately in a reduction of Pentagon funding.  Commentators have suggested that Ashton could adequately direct the agency through such periods of difficulty.

Furthermore, Ashton is an interesting candidate as his background is primarily academic.  Holding a doctorate in physics from the University of Oxford, Ashton is specialized in high-tech and conventional weaponry acquisitions.  This expertise could be valuable when drafting budgets and ensuring that diminishing funds are being used effectively.  Perhaps most importantly, he has received Dempsey’s respect ‘far and wide’.

Critics have pointed out that while Ashton has respect and is knowledgeable on theoretical matters, he lacks direct military service unlike Hagel.  Al Jazeera also reports that ‘he has less experience overseeing war strategy’ than his predecessor did.  It will thus be crucial and curious to examine how he would act and conduct foreign operations during his time as Secretary.

In the ever-changing world of domestic politics and international relations, strong, smart and capable leaders are required. They must possess the ability to make sensible decisions on how best to address complex and, at times, extremely threatening foreign challenges.  As Obama considers his strategy forward, he will need to rely on dedicated public officials and members of the armed forces.  With his fourth Secretary of Defense, Obama must present a unified, coherent policy to help establish order in the Middle-East and counter instability in Ukraine as well as mounting tension with Russia.  Time will tell whether Carter will be able to aid the President effectively to further the United States’ interests and ensure global security.

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