Chuck Hagel’s abrupt departure from the Pentagon on November 24 became inevitable after weeks of disagreement with the White House over strategy against the Islamic State (IS). The split had become public a month earlier, when Hagel’s blunt two-page memorandum on Middle East policy was leaked to the press. Addressed to national security advisor Susan Rice, the memo warned that the campaign against the Islamic State would unravel unless there was greater clarity regarding Washington’s intentions in Syria.
Hagel was ambivalent. On the one hand, he was uncomfortable with the insistence of humanitarian bombers on Obama’s team—notably Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power—that targeting the regime of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad should be an integral part of anti-IS strategy. On the other, he was aware that the nascent anti-IS coalition could unravel if its stridently anti-Assad members, such as Saudi Arabia, decided that the effort was no longer worth their while. All along he was unable to spell out what would constitute victory against the Islamic State and how the current strategy is going to achieve it.
To make things worse for Hagel, his relations with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had become strained because of the latter’s doubts about Obama’s “no boots on the ground” approach to the Islamic State. On several occasions last fall Dempsey indicated that eventually American ground troops may be needed in anti-IS operations in Iraq—“we’re certainly considering it,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in testimony on November 13—but the White House remained adamant that this would not happen. In addition, Dempsey is believed to favor rapprochement with Bashar’s regime as the only viable anti-IS force on the ground, but Hagel was unwilling to support such a radical policy shift. In the end Hagel looked almost irrelevant: When Dempsey testified in the House in mid-November, some congressmen behaved as if Hagel was not in the room; and he acted as if he did not have much to say.
A strong and articulate secretary of defense could have tried to make more of an impact in the decisionmaking process, but Hagel was neither. As soon as Obama had finished praising him at the parting ceremony, White House operatives—prompted by Chief of Staff Denis McDonough—were busy bad-mouthing Hagel as inept and insubstantial. The scapegoating was inevitable, in view of the character of Obama’s inner circle. Even Hagel’s immediate predecessors Robert Gates, a far abler manager, and Leon Panetta, a more consummate political operative, were defeated by the obsessive micromanagement and cliquishness of this White House. Neither Gates nor Panetta (both smarter than Hagel) was able to postpone the withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, which they regarded as too hasty and which arguably helped the rise of ISIS in the ensuing period.
For the remaining two years of his term Barack Obama needs a defense secretary who can willingly pretend to be a team player without actually presuming to belong to the team. Überwonk Ashton Carter fits the bill. He can pretend, more articulately than Hagel, that there is a clear strategy in place to combat the Islamic State; that this strategy does not necessarily include targeting Bashar al-Assad, but that in the end he still has to go; and that training and equipping 5,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels each year will make some positive difference to the outcome.
At the conceptual level, Carter will need to reconcile limited U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State with the Powell Doctrine of using maximum force to score a quick and decisive victory. An even greater challenge for Carter may be dealing with Congress at a time when it is controlled by Republicans instinctively opposed to reduced military spending, such as the neurotic new Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain.
Carter is the right man for the post. A person of substance would not be comfortable with inheriting a messy situation created by others, yet having little or no say in its substantive management. But all of that does not matter, because Obama and his team have made the job irrelevant. And during Carter’s confirmation proceedings nobody will ask the one important question: What American interest is served by a $600 billion “defense” budget and a thousand bases and military installations in 150 countries around the world?