The forced resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel points to two major problems in the national security policies of the Obama administration that have not been corrected in the past six years. The obvious problem is the failure to name a powerful secretary of defense who will not let senior general officers get out in front of White House policy. The more serious problem is the failure of President Barack Obama to name powerful individuals in the field of national security who understand the need for strategic thinking. With the exception of Secretary of State John Kerry, President Obama’s appointments throughout the foreign policy bureaucracy have been mediocre at best.
For the past six years, three secretaries of defense (Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Hagel) have allowed the chairmen of the joint chiefs as well as senior regional commanders to make strong public statements on military issues before the Obama administration has adopted a clear policy position. Gates was the worst offender in this regard, allowing Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal to lobby for additional forces in Afghanistan at a time when President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden knew the United States had to start a withdrawal process. Both Petraeus and McChrystal went far out of their lanes, with General McChrystal demonstrating insubordination in describing key civilian officials in the national security bureaucracy.
Panetta and Hagel followed Gates’ lead in this regard and, as a result, chairman of the joint chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has been an active and forceful spokesman for the application of additional U.S. military force in Iraq and Syria. Both Panetta and Hagel demonstrated at their confirmation hearings that they were neither strategic thinkers nor students of the use of military force. As a result, too many general officers have made public comments on matters related to policy and strategy that have embarrassed the Obama administration. General Dempsey’s congressional testimony has been particularly weak, and Secretary of Hagel has been similarly unimpressive in testifying to the Senate and House armed forces committees.
President Obama arrived at the White House with very little background and experience in the vital fields of foreign and national security policy, and virtually no exposure to national defense issues. As a result, his appointments to the key positions of secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, and
CIA director have been not only disappointing but destructive. At the national security council, we have seen a retired marine general (General James Jones), a domestic policy staffer from the Hill (Thomas Donilon), and now a close friend of the president (Susan Rice) try and fail to get a grip on key strategic issues. At the Department of State, John Kerry has performed admirably, particularly in view of the failure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to register a success for U.S. diplomacy in any key region.
Appointments to the Central Intelligence Agency have been particularly woeful. Panetta was captured by the National Clandestine Service upon arrival in 2009, and his immediate successors (General Petraeus and John Brennan) have embarrassed the White House. Panetta was referred to privately as “Uncle Leon” because of his inability to establish strong leadership at the CIA. Brennan has not only lied to the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, but he has been allowed to block the release of an important document on torture and abuse. A CIA operative was responsible for destruction of 92 torture tapes, an obvious case of destruction of evidence, but the Department of the Judiciary found no reason to indict.
The inability of three secretaries of defense to ride herd on senior general officers at an important juncture in national security policy points to the need for a seasoned expert who can reexamine use of force issues, gain control over weapons acquisition policy, and take a hard look at defense spending. The mainstream media is already speculating that former deputy defense chiefs, such as Ashton Carter or Michele Flournoy, are leading candidates to replace Hagel but neither one is strong enough for such a difficult assignment.
President Obama needs to take a hard look at individuals such as Larry Korb or Richard Danzig, who have important ideas about military reform and would have no problem in controlling the politicking and lobbying of senior general officers. The president actually wanted to name Danzig as a deputy defense chief in 2009, but he allowed Gates to block the appointment of a serious student of the military who also had close ties to the White House. In any event, the Obama administration needs to stop relying on political apparatchiks in the White House for policy guidance and to start encouraging cabinet officials to take an active role in the decision making process.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and an adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism” (City Lights Publishers) and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: A Whistleblower at the CIA” (City Lights Publishers).