Leading in age of retrenchment

President Obama recently announced his choices for the two top national security positions in the United States: Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary, and John Brennan for CIA director. Both men are known for speaking their minds — Hagel famously broke from his party to denounce the Iraq war, while Brennan is viewed as one of the sole voices urging greater accountability and tighter standards in America’s expanding drone war. And though both men are in many ways products of the institutions they’ll soon lead, it’s a good bet that both will push their respective agencies toward a more modest, constrained role. 

If Hagel is confirmed — as he almost surely will be, current congressional theatrics notwithstanding — he’ll become the first former enlisted combat soldier to lead the nation’s defense establishment. The former Nebraska senator’s military experience shaped him powerfully: Like many in his generation of Vietnam veterans, he left the Army convinced that “There’s no glory, only suffering in war,” and vowing “to do everything” he could “to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute.” 

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Watching Iraq unravel, he became increasingly critical of the Bush administration’s approach to the war there — and he didn’t keep quiet about his displeasure. In 2006, he published an op-ed in The Washington Post asserting that “We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged ... in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam.” A few months later, he described the Iraq troop surge in a Senate hearing as “a dangerous foreign policy blunder.”

Hagel’s been an equal-opportunity speaker of hard truths: when it comes to the Obama administration’s policies in Afghanistan, he asserted in 2009 that the planned troop surge there was “not sustainable at all; I think we’re marking time as we slaughter more young people.” 

His general military philosophy is pretty clear: DOD needs to get back to basics. More concretely, it needs to get out of the counterinsurgency business and out of the occupation business. And to Hagel, this is all the more urgent in an era of fiscal constraint: The Defense Department is “bloated” and in need of a serious purgative, he said. “We’ve taken priorities, we’ve taken dollars, we’ve taken programs, we’ve taken policies out of the State Department ... and put them over in Defense,” he complained in 2011.

It’s a safe bet that with Hagel at the helm, a shrinking DOD budget will be matched by a shrinking vision of the Defense Department’s role and core competencies. 

We can expect to see much the same at Brennan’s CIA. Brennan spent the bulk of his career at the CIA, but like Hagel, he must have been absent on the day they passed the Kool-Aid around. Although the human-rights community viewed him as too closely associated with Bush administration policies on so-called “enhanced interrogation,” Brennan had broken publicly with his former employers by 2006, when he publicly condemned the practice of waterboarding, declaring it “beyond the bounds of what a civilized society should employ.” 

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As Obama’s top White House counterterrorism adviser, Brennan continued to demonstrate that he was no one’s man but his own: He helped preside over a dramatic expansion of America’s targeted killings program, but he also reportedly became one of the few voices inside the White House insisting that even covert killings had to comply with international law. “If everyone in this administration cared as much about accountability and the rule of law as John Brennan, I wouldn’t be worried at all about the use of drones,” one senior administration official told me.

Brennan has also reportedly been one of the few senior officials to voice concern about the CIA’s shift away from old-fashioned intelligence gathering (aka, spying) toward paramilitary activities (aka, killing people). He is said to believe that housing much of our drone program in the CIA, an organization dedicated to covert activity, is inconsistent with a commitment to transparent decision-making about the use of force. Add to that a concern about institutional overlap and role confusion: Just as Hagel worries the Pentagon has swallowed up many former State Department programs and priorities, Brennan is said to worry that the CIA has swallowed up too many Pentagon responsibilities, such as dropping ordnance on bad guys.

So don’t look to Hagel or Brennan to expand the roles of the Defense Department or the CIA. On the contrary, their message to their respective agencies will likely be one that’s both simple and well-suited to this age of retrenchment: CIA, DOD — get back in your box.

Brooks is a former counselor to the undersecretary of Defense for policy. She is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New American Foundation.