After Hagel: What Now for U.S. Military Policy?

Hagel aboard USS Vella

Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy/Department of Defense

After Hagel: What Now for U.S. Military Policy?
| published November 25, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

More than a few Washington insiders have been suggesting this moment was coming. Still, Monday’s announcement came as a political earthquake: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is resigning his post effective immediately.

Citing the need for the Pentagon and the American military to establish “new leadership,” and insisting that the decision was arrived at mutually by both Hagel and President Barack Obama, the resignation of Hagel comes only two and three weeks after previous rumors sparked both the White House and Hagel’s office to issue assurances that the Defense Secretary intended to work at least until the end of 2016—at which time a newly-elected president would be waiting in the wings.

And though Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told CNN today that all parties were in agreement that it was time for new leadership for the U.S. military, media chatter starting early on Monday indicated that Hagel was pushed out—whether gently or forcefully—by a White House unhappy with Hagel’s performance on military matters, most especially the increasingly costly and complex threat posed by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to the long term stability of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and the wider Middle East.

But others in Washington—and not just the chattering classes of reporters and political analysts—point out that tension had been building between senior White House staffers and Hagel, a Republican, for many months. Much of that stress has reportedly come from disagreements over military and foreign policy, especially as it applies to a rapidly-changing situation in Iraq and Syria, at a time when the President wanted to concentrate on plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Hagel has also been widely reported to have had disagreements in cabinet meetings. Many of those present say that Hagel disliked having to mince words and play politics with the long-term Obama staffers, and over time he was known to remain mostly silent during cabinet meetings or large-group discussions. Conversely, Hagel would often have his most important conversations with Obama in private, or in small groups, where disagreements over policy could be kept out of the mainstream discussion.

Speaking in a radio interview early on Monday, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that Hagel had complained privately of micromanagement and military meddling by the White House. Hagel also expressed, on several public occasions, nuanced disagreements with the White House on certain foreign policy issues. And after the President famously dismissed ISIS back in the spring as “a junior varsity team” and a “band of misfits,” Hagel told reporters in a widely-watched press conference that ISIS was indeed a very serious threat—not just to the stability of the Middle East, but also for the long term security of the United States and most of its allies.

Those disagreements over the full extent of the threat of ISIS—and the U.S. response to the collapse of the Iraqi army, U.S, support for Kurdish fighters, and even U.S. humanitarian efforts to support the Yezidis—have led to factions within the foreign policy apparatus and the Pentagon. Hagel has said in private that the White House was slow to respond, and largely reactive, during the first weeks of ISIS’s rapid advances across Syria and into Iraq.

In a statement released to all military personnel and all military contractors during the early afternoon hours of Monday, Hagel said that he and the President were in agreement about his stepping down.

“I want you to know that I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished together,” Hagel said in his statement. “We have prepared ourselves, our Allies and the Afghan National Security Forces for a successful transition in Afghanistan. We have taken the fight to ISIL, and, with our Iraqi and coalition partners, have blunted the momentum of this barbaric enemy. We have come to the aid of millions of people around the world who have suffered the ravages of natural disasters and of disease. We have worked tirelessly to sustain our all-volunteer force that has given us so much during 13 years of war.”

Later on Monday, at a brief appearance at the White House alongside the President, Hagel expressed his polite gratitude for having been chosen to serve in the key position in time of war. Acknowledging those present, Hagel also gave a nod toward Capitol Hill—deftly averting any comment on the political partisanship and the steady stream of criticism leveled at the White House for its handling of foreign policy.

Hagel’s departure from the top role at the Pentagon comes at a complex and difficult time for U.S. foreign policy and military strategy. The long term strategy of the White House had been for withdrawal of all U.S. troops in late 2011 and a road map to an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan next year—each part of an overall extraction from combat situations which had become costly and generally unpopular. But a resurgent al Qaeda and Sunni extremism—partly reinvented in the form of ISIS (also sometimes called ISIL)—challenged President Obama’s overall goal of ramping down U.S. military might in the wider Middle East and central Asia.

While chaos and lawlessness prevailed across much of Syria during uprisings during ther Arab Spring, ISIS built itself into a fully functioning army. Composed in part of former military components of Saddam Hussein’s largely Sunni army and security forces, and in part by anti-Assad rebel forces battling the regime in Damascus, ISIS sprang into action earlier this year—folding other rebel factions under its direct control, and seizing large tracts of area in northern Syria.

In June, ISIS forces swept into Iraq using blitzkrieg tactics and heavy weaponry. Ahead of its rapid advance, a U.S.-trained Iraqi army collapsed with breathtaking totality, retreating quickly, shedding itself of weapons and uniforms, and abandoning Jeeps, armed SUVs, personnel carriers, rifles and automatic weapons, and even tanks. ISIS advanced to within about 30 miles of Baghdad before its advance was stopped. ISIS also seized control of oil fields and oil distribution centers, weapons caches, the hydroelectric facility at Mosul, and even banks. Under pressure for not acting more inclusively toward Sunnis in positions of government and power, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—a Shiite once backed by Iran and aligned with the U.S.—was forced out of office. ISIS threatened to unravel a decade of work conducted during a long costly war which took the lives of thousands of American soldiers. ISIS also threatened the stability of neighboring Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The political and military crisis forced the White House into a reluctant but nevertheless rapid retooling of foreign policy—and alongside other serious international flash points, including Russian intervention in the Ukraine, a bloody war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza which would eventually take more than 2300 lives, and new tensions between China and U.S. military components in the South China Sea, the United States was presented with a complex tableaux of new foreign policy challenges.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill intimated that Hagel was being pushed out by a White House largely unhappy with the circumstances the U.S. now faces. Others suggest that Hagel’s ouster is the result of too many disagreements with Obama’s top staffers and strategists. A few analysts have indicated their suspicion that Hagel is being asked to fall on his sword as a way to deflect criticism from a White House policy generally viewed by critics as slow, reactionary, and overly-rooted in caution.

White House insiders, sometimes speaking out of turn, often complained that Hagel was unwilling—or unable—to express and communicate the foreign policy and military goals of the President and the White House. According to this view, Hagel therefore sometimes used language or phrasing not fully vetted or agreed upon by White House arrangement. Early policy confusion over the American response to the threat posed by ISIS confirms that there were sometimes disagreements over language, if not outright and sharply differing opinions regarding policy. Hagel was, at first at least, one of the few administration officials willing to publicly acknowledge the long-term danger ISIS might pose to stability of foreign policy. Hagel was also widely known to disagree with the administration over the use of bombing in Iraq and in northern Syria; Hagel supported the use of airstrikes while some in the White House were reluctant to commit to air power to counter ISIS.  Hagel's sharpest disagreements came with vice-President Joe Biden and national security advisors Anthony Blinken and Dennis McDonough, all three of whom advised the President toward a more passive, wait-and-see approach.  Hagel often stressed the need for direct, measurable action.

Hagel often complained in private that he was not made welcome among Obama’s inner circle, but those in the White House say it was Hagel who chose to remain aloof from White House discussions and policy-making. Differences of opinion also became a major source of contention as Hagel’s main area of responsibility—a systematic drawdown in Afghanistan—was rapidly trumped by other, more dangerous flashpoints, including the war between Hamas and Israel and the new threat of ISIS. Though the U.S. was never drawn into a combat role in the Ukraine crisis, the Ukraine’s bloody civil war—in which pro-Russian militants fought with Ukrainian troops loyal to Kiev—proved to be the most volatile and violent confrontation between Russia and the United States (and NATO) since the end of the Cold War.

Hagel has agreed to remain in his post as Defense Secretary until the President can arrange for a successor. Within minutes of the first word of Hagel’s resignation came the discussions about his possible successors. Almost immediately, one name seemed to be getting more traction than the dozen other potential candidates: Democrat Michele Flournoy. Flournoy served as a key military affairs and foreign policy advisor to Obama in during his 2012 election campaign and before that worked as chief policy director for the Pentagon as Under Secretary of Defense.

Flournoy was widely rumored to have an interest in the position, but she has also expressed a not-so-secret insistence that she not face some of the same White House micro-management issues which dogged Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, and a previous Defense Secretary Robert Gates (and now Hagel). After his departure from the Pentagon, Gates—writing in his memoirs—was critical of Obama and his top staffers for what he described as interference. Gates also indicated that the White House foreign policy and military posture was one of over-caution and that top White House staffers—particularly those within Obama’s innermost circle—had little patience or tolerance for talk of military confrontation. Flournoy, though having never served in the U.S. military, nevertheless has a track record of backing the military and the recommendations of the generals and admirals. A Democrat and a Harvard and Oxford graduate, the White House may have concluded she would serve as a rubber stamp for the Pentagon brass. But the White House also saw advantages to Flournoy not found in other Obama appointees at the Pentagon: Flournoy served in the Clinton administration in a key role as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Threat Assessment and Reduction, a role which may have uniquely prepared her for some of the troubling and complex foreign policy terrain she would face if approved for the top job at Defense.

But later on Tuesday, Flournoy publicly rejected any further talk of taking the position. In a written statement she cited family concerns and personal reasons for turning down any offer, but those who know her in Washington say her principal concern was that she would not be given flexibility or latitude to make military decisions without first running the gauntlet of Obama’s inner circle at the White House.

Whomever the White House chooses to replace Hagel will have a tough time. The President’s selection must first navigate the nomination process, and that means vetting a candidate who can receive the approval of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its chairman, Sen. John McCain—the Republican who ran against Obama in 2008, and who has been increasingly critical of the Obama foreign policy of the last several years. Flournoy—until Tuesday—was at the top of a short list which may also include U.S. Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), and Under Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Also mentioned: Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island; however Reed also rejected the offer even before the offer was made official. The President must fill the vacancy quickly: the 2014 midterm elections wrought a heavy GOP majority in both the Senate and the House. Though Hagel will remain at his job until a replacement is found, it would not be the preference of the White House to forgo a firm decision past January.

In the meantime, the cost of the U.S. interventions in Syria and Iraq are mounting: the White House has already asked for additional billions to fund military actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the conditions for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan have become highly elastic as it becomes apparent that without a force remaining to combat terrorist, al Qaeda and Taliban elements, Afghanistan might easily fall into the same chaos which is now engulfing much of Iraq. Furthermore, whoever replaces Hagel must also contend with an ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, an aggressive Russia, new flare-ups in Israel and Gaza, and potential military provocations by China and North Korea.

Hagel was seen by some as an ideal choice to serve as Secretary of State at the time of his selection. Hagel is a decorated veteran who joined the Army at age 21, volunteering—against the advice of his family and friends—to serve in combat in Vietnam (though he had the option at the time to be posted in Germany or another location in Europe). Hagel was the first enlisted combat veteran to have served as Defense Secretary. Hagel was a sergeant in Vietnam, where he served with valor. His decorations include two Purple Hearts and an Army Commendation Medal. Hagel, who co-founded a cellular company in the early 1990s, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996, running as a Republican against Nebraska governor Ben Nelson.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Battling ISIS: Will Air Power Be Enough?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 17, 2014.

The Cost of Going Back Into Iraq; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 8, 2014.