Blog No. 54 After Hagel: Who and What?

For several days, the media was awash in stories about the dismissal (half-heartedly disguised as a resignation) of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. In the usual blend of reporting from anonymous sources and outright speculation, various theories were advanced as the reasons for his departure. While such theories commanded a certain amount of gossipy interest, they were largely beside the point. We often see things rather differently from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but this time we think they each had it right.

As the Times put it:

Chuck Hagel, who was pressured to resign on Monday, was not a strong defense secretary and, after less than two years, appeared to have lost President Obama’s confidence.

But he was not the core of the Obama administration’s military problem. That lies with the president and a national security policy that has too often been incoherent and shifting at a time of mounting international challenges, especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

And in the Journal:

As the first Administration official to depart since the election, Mr. Hagel looks like a ritual sacrifice, and not the right one. If President Obama really wanted a fresh start in his last two years, he’d begin by sacking most of his White House national security team. They’re the tenderfoot Talleyrands who have presided over the radiating calamity in Syria, the collapse of the Iraqi military, the rise of Islamic State, and the failure to deter or stop Vladimir Putin’s march into Ukraine.

It has been reported that President Obama will nominate Ashton B. Carter, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, to succeed Hagel. Mr. Carter is highly regarded at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill and should receive little challenge to his personal qualifications. On the other hand, his confirmation hearings will provide a welcome opportunity for a thorough examination of the Administration’s national defense policies.

Mr. Carter will be expected to explain and defend the Administration’s policies with respect to the defense budget and threats in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. It will not be an easy, and indeed it is one that the President himself has too often ignored or found difficult to carry out. We have sometimes wished that Congress had something comparable to the Question Time in the British House of Commons where the Prime Minister is required to answer questions from any member. We do not have a parliamentary system, however, and no President is likely to volunteer to participate in a Question Time. Thus, confirmation hearings may be the best available substitute for seeking clarification of our strategic goals and methods and to focus attention on issues that have been seemingly swept aside

A few of the questions we would like to have Mr. Carter asked are as follows. (Readers of are invited and urged to join the discussion by sending in their own suggested questions.)

Defense budget. The Defense budget has been drastically cut with the Army being reduced to its smallest size since before World War II. Do you have a view of the size and readiness of our military forces in light of current threats and obligations in the Middle East, Europe and Asia?

ISIS. Many military leaders have expressed doubt that the President’s expressed goal to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS can be met without some commitment of US combat forces. Do you have a view of this question? Are there any circumstances in which you would be willing to recommend a commitment of, say, up to ten or twenty thousand troops?

Iraq. The President has described our role in Iraq as helping Iraq to help itself. Isn’t our principal reason for being in Iraq not to help Iraq as such but to respond to a threat to the United States from ISIS? Do you agree that ISIS in Iraq and Syria poses a threat to the United States right now?

Syria. Secretary Hagel is reported to have sent a memorandum urging a clarification of our policy in Syria. Have you seen the memorandum? If not do you plan to ask for it? Are you clear as to what our strategy is, taking into account both ISIS and Assad? Do you think it is feasible for the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS with out any support in its war against Assad? The President’s plan is to train and equip an opposition force of 5,000 rebel troops annually. Have you seen any estimates of the cost of such training and equipment? Do you believe that a force of that size will be adequate?

Afghanistan. Recent attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country have indicated a growing strength of the Taliban. How serious a threat to U.S. security would it be if the Taliban once again took control of the country? The President’s stated plan is to reduce the American force in Afghanistan to approximately 10,000 in the next few weeks. Do you believe that a force that size is sufficient to prevent a Taliban victory? If it is not, would you be prepared to recommend a further deployment of troops?

We have declined to provide arms to the Ukrainian Army. What do you understand to be the reasons for this policy? Are there any circumstances under which you would recommend a change to provide, say tanks, anti-tank weapons, or ammunition? Are there any circumstances under which you might recommend a commitment of U.S. ground forces to Ukraine?

NATO. Are you aware of the extent to which the size of NATO forces has been reduced from previous levels? Do you believe that NATO has sufficient strength to repel a Russian incursion into the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Would you consider a Russian incursion in one of those counties, comparable to what Russia has done in Ukraine, to be an “armed attack” within the meaning of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty? In the event of an armed attack pursuant to Article 5 would we be prepared to respond with combat forces including ground troops?

In 2012 the President announced a “pivot to Asia.” What did you understand by that, particularly in military terms? What has been done thus far? What remains to be done? Is our Pacific Fleet of sufficient size and strength given China’s growing emergence as a sea power?

Micromanagement. A problem that plagued not only Secretary Hagel but his predecessors, Gates and Panetta, was micromanagement by a bloated White House/National Security Council staff. For example, as reported by The Washington Post:

White House officials regularly call commanders in Afghanistan to gauge their thinking on the progress of the war and their future troop needs. Those calls were a particular source of irritation to Gates, who said he tried to squelch them during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In a speech this month at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, he recalled being shocked to discover that a direct telephone line to the White House had been installed in the Afghanistan headquarters of the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

“I had them tear it out while I was standing there,” Gates said. “And I told the commanders, ‘You get a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me.” Since then, the calls to field commanders have resumed, defense officials said.

Have you asked for and received any assurance that you will not be subject to such micromanagement. If you are, will you respond with the vigor and forthrightness of Secretary Gates?

To the extent that Mr. Carter indicates that he has not formed an opinion on any of the above issues, he should be pressed for a commitment to return to Congress by a date certain within a reasonable time after confirmation to provide further testimony.

Republicans should not be seen as being obstructive during confirmation hearings, but a well-prepared and respectful but rigorous examination of the nominee should be informative to Congress, the public and possibly the Administration.

2 thoughts on “Blog No. 54 After Hagel: Who and What?

  • Well reasoned on all points, Doug.

    Obama came to the office about a decade too early. He hadn’t yet learned the niceties of the U.S. Senate when those of the Presidency were thrust upon him. No wonder he is behind the curve. I think we were lulled into a false sense of security when he bumped off Hillary Clinton for the nomination and thought he was smarter and better organized than he was/is.

    Unfortunately, the wheels have come off since he was re-elected. I fear it is going to be a long two years.

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