December 3, 2014

The new Secretary of Defense - we need a "wartime consigliere"

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his likely successor Ashton Carter

Last week, CNN called and alerted me that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was about to announce his resignation, and that I should be ready to offer my analysis of the impact of Hagel's upcoming departure.

I subsequently made three appearances on both CNN and CNN International to provide my thoughts. My assessment, which turned out to be correct, was that Secretary Hagel was forced out by a small group of President Obama's advisers. There is some history germane to the Hagel firing as well as his relationship to the other members of the national security team.

Mr. Hagel had been brought to the Secretary of Defense position after his two predecessors wrote books soon after they had retired that contained some unflattering reviews of the President's and his advisers' conduct of foreign policy. It was thought that Hagel would be a noncontroversial team player who would merely follow the President's orders - as formulated by the White House insiders, including Valerie Jarrett and Susan Rice - without any pushback.

For the initial part of Secretary Hagel's tenure at the Pentagon, they were correct. He executed the Administration's policies - flawed policies in many analysts' opinions - in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2013, when the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad crossed an Obama "red line" by using chemical weapons on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, Hagel was confronted by the senior military leadership over the abysmal decision of the President to not act on his threats to punish the Syrians with U.S. military action.

That failure to maintain American credibility has emboldened those around the world who now believe they can act with impunity without engendering an American reaction - Vladimir Putin and the Russians come to mind. It appeared that American military action was permanently "off the table."

That changed when fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) moved into northern Iraq from northeastern Syria and almost without resistance seized Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The President was convinced to act to try and remedy the Administration-caused debacle in both Iraq and Syria, probably by the same advisers that developed the failed policies that got us into this situation.

It was the Obama Administration's failure to reach an agreement with the Iraqis in 2011 to allow a residual force of American troops to remain in the country that created the conditions that led to the ultimate collapse of the Iraqi Army. See my earlier article, Iraq's second largest city falls to Islamists - fault of the United States?

Likewise, it was the refusal of the Administration in 2012 to provide money, weapons and training to the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), creating a vacuum gladly filled by al-Qa'idah in Iraq, which joined with other Islamists in Syria to form ISIS.

Those two ill-advised actions - running for the door in Iraq, and refusing to assist the FSA when they needed support and had a good chance of success in removing the al-Asad regime - created the conditions under which ISIS has become a major threat to the region, and the United States and its allies.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has recently been quite vocal in his public statements, including a commitment to recommend to the President to re-introduce American ground combat forces into Iraq if the general felt the situation warranted it. That was almost a challenge to President Obama's White House advisers, or as they have been called, the "chairborne rangers."

Secretary Hagel tried walking a fine line between the President and the military leadership. I suspect that posture was viewed at the White House as an act of disloyalty on the part of the Secretary. Secretary Hagel is a decorated and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran - I doubt he knows how to be disloyal.

Secretary Hagel departs at a time when the military leadership at the Department of Defense is at odds with the White House and National Security Council over their inept handling of the fight against ISIS - including micromanagement of the air campaign - the future role of American forces in Afghanistan, and continued cutting of the military budget.

The question is what happens next? According to media reports, the President will nominate former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to replace Hagel.

The choice of successor is critical to the future conduct of American foreign policy - we are fighting two wars (more correctly, one war on two fronts), Iran has successfully out-maneuvered this Administration and will likely become a nuclear-armed state, the Russians have designs on portions (or all) of Ukraine, and the Chinese are rapidly expanding their military capabilities.

I fear that the President is looking for a manager that his staff can manipulate - that is what they thought they were getting when they nominated former Senator Hagel. What we need is a leader who can take the advice of his military leadership - they are the professionals at conducting successful military operations - and go to the President and convince him of the measures necessary to execute effective foreign policy. The new Secretary must be able to marginalize the amateurs currently making policy.

What we need, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in the movie The Godfather, is a wartime consigliere. The Secretary of Defense is not merely an administrator, but an active participant in the command and control of military operations. Since the passage of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the military chain of command goes directly from the President/Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander.

For example, orders in the war against ISIS flow from President Obama to Secretary Hagel to General Austin (commander of the U.S. Central Command). Note the absence of the Vice President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military service chiefs. The Chairman provides advice to the President and Secretary of Defense, and the service chiefs provide combat-ready forces to the combatant commanders.

Mr. Carter, from all accounts, is a highly-qualified bureaucrat - he has served with distinction in a variety of positions in the Department of Defense - as well as experienced in academia and consulting.

However, is he a wartime consigliere? We will soon see.