December 2, 2014

On the Firing of Chuck Hagel

Thought you might find the below opinion piece from Jed Babbin of interest. Like Babbin, I think discussion of who succeeds Chuck Hagel is of academic interest, at best, because there is no indication that any of the conditions leading to Hagel’s departure will change. Thus, any replacement will experience the same frustrations and have as little impact on foreign policy, national security, national defense matters as did Hagel. 
I had a hand in drafting this piece last week following the announcement of Hagel’s resignation (firing), in which we provided our own perspective on the topic and made some suggestions about things the Administration can do to improve its ability to handle national security matters. Among the material left on the cutting-room floor during the editing process was this:
“As noted by former Secretary Bob Gates, the National Security Council Staff was composed of approximately 50 people when he worked for President George H. W. Bush; under President Barack Obama, the NSC has exploded to over 350. Former Secretaries Gates and Leon Panetta have both commented on the stifling level of micromanagement exerted by the White House over the execution of actions necessary to implement defense policies and to achieve security objectives aboard. Their frustration was compounded by their inability to penetrate the small, inner-circle of advisers that dominate policy formulation in the White House, an obstacle that confounded President Obama’s first National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones, and reportedly has plagued Secretary Hagel, too…

Cabinet officers are appointed by the President to lead and manage their respective departments, advise the President on policies pertaining to their area of responsibility then implement those policies as directed. If Secretary Hagel was being fired for incompetence in doing this, it would be warranted. But he isn’t. In fact, Hagel was actually successful in implementing the President’s policy to manage the decline of America’s military to levels of capacity and readiness not seen since prior to World War II. In doing so, however, he discovered first-hand the repercussions of such mismanagement when, in consultation with his senior military advisers, he was unable to provide effective options to accomplish the President’s stated objective of destroying ISIS. The President wanted a Secretary who would carry out policies that he had little influence in formulating; sought to manage the Secretary’s implementation of those policies with a staff operating outside of the Secretary’s control; then fired him when impossible-to-achieve results never materialized.”
As has been noted by many commentators over the past week, to include the NY Times (though see this interesting comment here), Washington Post, and other left-leaning/usually pro-Obama outlets, the Administration’s policy formulation, implementation, and management practices are at the heart of the problem…not any particular Secretary of Defense. When it comes to finding a replacement, this problematic process/management issue and the nature of the Obama presidency will preclude appointment of an ‘effective’ SECDEF. Any competent candidate acceptable to a Democratic administration will decline in order to remain viable for a prospective Hillary Clinton administration. Any candidate who might actually want to have an impact will decline knowing full well the insular nature and micromanagement style of the President’s inner-circle that they won’t be able to penetrate. No Republican-affiliated individual would be asked to serve since Obama has already had two Secretaries write tell-all books and the third was increasingly at public odds with the Administration’s defense/security policies; accordingly, priority will be placed on loyalty to the Administration over competence as a SECDEF. Given the delay in gaining Senate confirmation, any new Secretary would have little more than 18 months to accomplish anything and I believe it is usually the case that a waning Administration becomes more tired, more insular, and less likely to change habits…thus any new Secretary will have less chance of making any meaningful changes.

In short, anyone nominated for the position will be selected for loyalty, low-risk to embarrass or argue with the Administration, willing to operate under the thumb of Obama’s inner-circle of advisers and an intrusive national security council staff, and no prospect for future employment in a follow-on Administration.

The American Spectator


Mediocrity by design is how the White House wants it.

By Jed Babbin – 12.1.14

You will hear a lot between now and when Congress convenes in January about how urgent it is that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s replacement be confirmed by the Senate. The president will nominate someone and then shrug his shoulders at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, noting that things aren’t going well, and asking, “What do you expect? The Republicans are to blame because they haven’t confirmed the new defense secretary.”

It will all be baloney, of course, because we know that the secretary of defense’s job has been neutered by Obama’s White House team and it will remain so as long as he’s president.

We know this from any number of factual emanations from the administration, not the least of which was former defense secretary Bob Gates’s memoir, Duty, in which he whinged at great length about how all national security decisions were made by the president himself or his White House National Security Council. There is no evidence to show that the White House gave Hagel any greater authority or leeway, and there is no reason to expect that his successor will find any change.

So when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized that, “Given the importance of the issues handled by the secretary of defense, most Americans would probably prefer to hear that Mr. Hagel is leaving President Barack Obama’s Cabinet over policy differences and not some personal dispute,” we have to shake our heads and wonder if its editors have any idea of what is actually going on in Washington, or how America’s national defense decisions are being made.

If they had a clue, they’d know that it will always be easy for Obama — or any president — to find a willing patsy to take a cabinet post — any cabinet post — regardless of the White House’s denizens arrogating all the post’s authority and prerogatives to themselves. The prestige of a cabinet post will always be enough to attract precisely the kind of people you don’t want on those jobs. Which is how Hagel was chosen originally: he wasn’t picked because he possessed a towering intellect and knowledge of the world of defense.

Hagel was picked because he was less intelligent and even more malleable than Gates had been, and so he proved to be. He wasn’t removed from his post because he didn’t do everything he’d been told to do: he was fired because Obama wanted a smarter, higher-profile and more eloquent spokesman at the Pentagon who could defend his indefensible policy decisions for the last two years of his presidency. Hagel’s limitations suited Obama’s decisions while he involved us in Iraq again without a strategy that would defeat ISIS decisively, cut the military and intelligence budgets even more, and kept us on the downward slope from superpower to a nation that cannot influence important events abroad.

Obama will nominate Hagel’s successor from a pool that contains his most faithful adherents but limited to those among them who can fill the role of outspoken advocate that Hagel couldn’t. They will have to defend the continued flow of national security decisions that are simultaneously wrong-headed, damaging to our national security (and that of our allies), and corrosive. An enormously corrosive action was taken last week that has entirely slipped by the media.

Since he became president, Obama has been eroding our ability to defeat the ideology that propels Islamic terrorism. Years ago, he rid our national security policy documents of terms such as “jihad” and “Islam.” By forcing those terms out of the decision process, he has managed to limit his subordinates’ thinking (and too much of America) to believe that idiotic statements, such has his insistence that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria isn’t Islamic, can be true.

Since 9-11, we’ve viewed terrorists — correctly, under the Geneva Convention’s definitions — as illegal enemy combatants. Article IV of the Convention says that legal combatants are those who are: (a) commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance (such as wearing uniforms); (c) carry arms openly; and (d) conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Terrorists that do none of those things should be regarded as outside the protections of the Convention.

Last week, the Joint Chiefs announced a new policy that eliminates the term “illegal enemy combatants” from our lexicon and thus from the thinking of our national security policymakers. Terrorists are now to be regarded as “unprivileged enemy belligerents.” This is above and beyond absurd. Protesters shouting about their cause du jour are belligerents. Terrorists who, inter alia, hack the heads off hostages are operating contrary to the law of war and thus have to be labeled as enemies and combatants who operate illegally. But Obama’s thinking runs contrary to the law of war, and it is dutifully parroted by the Pentagon in its policies. The new defense secretary will have to be a political tool who can defend this idiocy.

People such as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson would fit Obama’s bill to succeed Hagel. Others — such as Air Force Secretary Debbie Lee James, who could be the first female secretary of defense — could be chosen because they might draw political fire that would otherwise be aimed at Obama. Soon-to-be former Sen. Mary Landrieu could do the same. Whoever it is, the choice will be entirely political. It should be treated as such by the Republicans in the confirmation hearings. And it would be but for the fact that, unless Obama tries to jam a confirmation hearing into the lame duck session, come January the new Senate Armed Services Committee chairman will be Sen. John McCain.

McCain will be eighty years old when he runs for a sixth Senate term in 2016. He has been the principal Republican spokesman on defense matters throughout the Obama presidency not because he’s had a track record of being right, but because the media have made him so, intentionally ignoring senators and congressmen who more eloquently — and reliably — espouse conservative positions.

Sen. McCain can be relied on to grandstand ineffectually as he has for decades. He will mis-focus the confirmation hearing on issues that appeal to his neoconservative mindset, such as Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the pending withdrawal from Afghanistan, about which the nominee will know nothing. McCain is a longtime pal of Hagel, so he’ll spend a lot of time criticizing Obama’s firing of his old friend. He’ll try to drag out of the nominee criticism of Obama’s non-strategy against ISIS without once asking the only important questions, which are how do you define victory over ISIS and how will Obama’s strategy produce it?

Instead of being subjected to McCain’s grandstanding, the nominee should have to defend Obama’s actions — in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, on cutting military spending — and much more. How will the nominee repair the damage done by these policies? On what basis does the nominee believe that he — or more likely she — will be able to penetrate Obama’s inner circle as defense secretary and actually perform the job? Those questions won’t be answered, and probably won’t even be asked.

However the nominee performs, he will be confirmed and be able to retire in place in the big office in the Pentagon’s E Ring. It’s a big job with a lot of perks that anyone who is comfortable with ineffectuality could enjoy. Over the next two years, it won’t be possible for anyone to restore the position to its proper stature and functions within the cabinet. You can bet that Obama will nominate someone who won’t even try.

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