President Barack Obama is looking for his fourth secretary of defense in six years. This fact says a lot more about the effectiveness of the president’s military policies than it does about the quality of the men who have served in that position.
Chuck Hagel was forced to resign because he was pushing back against Obama’s strategy in Syria and looking for the White House to finally decide what to do about about Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. And, following the Democrats’ disastrous results in the mid-term elections, the president needed a scapegoat.
Who better than Hagel, a Republican weakened during his contentious confirmation hearings (he was the only defense secretary nominee ever filibustered) and wasn’t a strong enough personality to sell Obama’s strategies to the nation’s generals, much less the country at large?
Several names are being floated as Hagel’s successor, including former high-ranking Pentagon officials Ash Carter and Michèle Flournoy. Some Republicans are pushing for former Sen. Joe Lieberman, always a hawk on foreign policy.
But we doubt Hagel’s successor will be any more successful at helping shape cohesive strategies in the Middle East than were Hagel, Leon Panetta or Robert Gates.
Sen. John McCain nailed it Monday when he said: “The president needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them. That is the real change we need right now.”
Echoing McCain’s opinion was military author Thomas E. Ricks , a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter. In Politico, Ricks wrote, Hagel’s “biggest mistake was taking the job. He was working for a White House stuffed with political hacks and obsessed with message. They should pay less attention to what they say and more to what they do. If they want to know what the problem is, they should look in the mirror.”
Whether the country is Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, or whether the opposition is the Islamic State, al-Qaida or the Taliban, the Obama administration has always appeared more interested in satisfying its political interests than in responding to complicated military and political events on the ground.
Obama likes to keep things simple: drones, timelines for withdrawal, limited engagement, reliance on special operations. All of these things have their place. But the overarching picture of Obama’s military policy entering 2015 is that he’d rather leave most — if not all — difficult decisions to the winner of the 2016 presidential election.
Thus, the chief qualification for his next secretary of defense is a willingness to say “yes.” That isn’t what we need in our powder-keg world.