Obama Has Double Dilemma in Choice of New Pentagon Chief

Obama Faces Political, Policy Dilemma Choosing Pentagon Chief
If President Obama sticks with former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon, he might be forced to spend political capital he needs for the bigger battle over the federal budget and deficit reduction. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama faces a growing dilemma in his choice of a new defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta.

Having dropped United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and named Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Obama runs the risk of appearing weak if he bows to political opposition again and chooses someone other than former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon.

Picking another candidate would show for a second time “that the president’s important choices for personnel can be vetoed by two or three senators,” said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, who specializes in U.S. foreign and defense policy. “The White House will come out of this significantly weakened.”

If Obama sticks with Hagel in the face of opposition from an ad hoc coalition of Republican advocates of muscular defense policies, Democratic supporters of Israel and gay rights activists, though, Obama might be forced to spend political capital he needs for the bigger battle over the federal budget and deficit reduction.

The leading alternative at present is Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, according to a person familiar with the selection process, who asked for anonymity because the White House hasn’t announced the president’s pick. Another prospect is former Undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy, which would enable Obama to break new ground by nominating the first woman for the top defense post. Former aides to President George W. Bush and Republican commentators opposed to Hagel have said they’d prefer either Carter or Flournoy.

Policy Implications

The choice has policy implications as well as political ones. Carter is an expert on managing the Defense Department’s byzantine bureaucracy and $600 billion-plus annual budget. Flournoy is a defense policy expert with close ties to Obama. Both, said one administration official who spoke on the the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, would cause the disciplined Obama White House less heartburn than would Hagel.

Hagel, 66, who met with Obama on Dec. 4 to discuss the Pentagon job, served with his brother Tom as an enlisted man in Vietnam and returned home with two Purple Hearts and a conviction that, as he put it in a 2002 interview, “war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute.”

‘Unshakable Integrity’

The criticism of Hagel drew a counter-attack from a bipartisan group of former U.S. national security advisers -- James L. Jones, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Frank Carlucci. “Hagel is a man of unshakable integrity and wisdom who has served his country in the most distinguished manner in peace and war,” they wrote in a letter published in the Washington Post on Dec. 25.

Supporters argue that his service record -- he would be the first former enlisted soldier to run the Pentagon -- and his blunt manner -- “nonsense” is a word he frequently uses -- would serve him well in curbing defense spending and standing up to big contractors and their congressional allies, as well as four-star general officers who have no time for sergeants.

He’s drawn criticism from some Republicans for his public opposition to the Bush administration’s troop surge during the Iraq war, questioning unilateral economic sanctions against Iran, and calling the defense budget “bloated,” and also from some members of both parties for citing the influence of the “Jewish lobby” on behalf of Israel.

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Thune of South Dakota have expressed concerns about Hagel and have promised tough confirmation hearings. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, also a Republican, has said he wouldn’t support a Hagel nomination.

‘Left of Obama’

“However bad Obama’s foreign policy is, Hagel is to the left of Obama,” William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, said in a Dec. 14 podcast. Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard, which calls itself a “conservative magazine and blog.”

The rise of interest groups and individuals who oppose White House cabinet nominations is a recent phenomenon, said Martha Kumar, professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland, who’s tracked presidential transitions.

“Once a name is put forward, you’ve groups lining up pretty quickly and that can become a point that opposition lawmakers use,” Kumar said in a phone interview.

The Obama administration also may be floating nominees’ names to assess opposition because, with negotiations over taxes and spending programs under way, “you don’t want to spend time arguing over nominations,” she said.

Contrarian Perspective

Discussions over fiscal matters also may be delaying Obama naming his cabinet appointments before his second inauguration on Jan. 21, Kumar said. At the start of their second terms, President Bill Clinton had named most of his national security team by Dec. 20, and Bush had completed naming his new cabinet by this time, Kumar said.

Choosing Hagel, who opposed sending more U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 and has called for engaging with adversaries such as Iran, might bring a contrarian perspective to Obama’s second term, Kay said.

“When he ran for president in 2007, Obama said we don’t need to just end the war in Iraq, but change the mindset that got us into war,” Kay said. “If you don’t have people around you who don’t challenge the most entrenched mindsets in Washington like the military,” the president may not get good advice.

Democratic Hawks

While Hagel is viewed as wary of U.S. military engagements, Flournoy, the former Pentagon official who’s an adviser to the Boston Consulting Group, had been backed by former deputy defense secretary and World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz as well as by Kristol. She is considered a Democrat who favors a more muscular U.S. military and isn’t unwilling to use that power to pursue national security goals, said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

She represented “the hawkish wing of the Democratic party, particularly when she was out of office during the Bush years,” said Feaver, who was a national security council aide to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush and supported Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Where Hagel was critical of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, Flournoy criticized the Republican administration “for failing to properly resource its overly ambitious goals.”

Weapons Wonk

Flournoy served as the Pentagon’s top policy official from 2009 until February this year, when she stepped down to be more available for her teenage children. In 2009, when the Obama administration debated the size of the surge force to send to Afghanistan, Flournoy argued for a larger force that would remain longer than the White House wanted, Feaver said, citing her role as mentioned in the book “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward.

Carter, who has alternated between Washington posts and a faculty position at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is a former Clinton administration Pentagon official who was responsible for nuclear weapons reduction efforts. In the Obama administration, he became the Pentagon’s top weapons acquisition official until Obama nominated him to become deputy defense secretary in October 2011.

A protege of Clinton administration defense secretary William Perry, Carter has an advantage that neither Hagel nor Flournoy have, Feaver said.

“He understands the procurement and management side of the Pentagon, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle right now,” Feaver said. “That’s where the money is.”

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