Hagel ouster highlights power shift

The forced resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelHillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers National security leaders, advocacy groups urge Congress to send election funds to states The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations MORE is exposing deep tensions between the Pentagon and President Obama’s national security staff.

While administration aides characterized Hagel’s departure as a mutual decision, insiders say it was the culmination of a larger power struggle that has intensified in Obama’s second term.

“[There’s a] difficult relationship between the National Security Council (NSC) and the Pentagon,” said one national security expert and former military officer who requested anonymity to speak freely. “It’s been true for a little while now.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Defense experts say there has long been distrust between the West Wing and the Pentagon, dating back to decisions about the “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009 and the Iraq troop drawdown in 2011.

The moment that really brought home the divide, experts said, was the president’s last-minute decision in September 2013 to refrain from missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Before Obama’s announcement, military officials had been privately grumbling about the efficacy of “pinprick” strikes against Assad, the lack of an overall strategy and the wisdom of using force solely to back the president’s “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

The president’s decision to back down from the strikes at the last minute after consulting top adviser Denis McDonough only made things worse, the former military officer said.

“What that indicates to the military audience is the lack of a strategic underlying concept, which is more troubling than standing up and down,” he said.

The friction between the Defense Department and the White House could make it tougher for Obama to find a replacement for Hagel, particularly given that Obama’s other Pentagon chiefs have complained about their treatment.

Hagel’s predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both penned tell-all books critical of the White House’s relationship with the Pentagon.

“We now have [an NSC] of nearly 350 people. It was 50 when Brent [Scowcroft] and I were there in the first Bush administration,” Gates said at a forum last month. “It’s in the increasing desire of the White House to control and manage every aspect of military affairs.”  

Defense insiders also say some within the Pentagon view the NSC as full of staffers who are politically loyal but lack expertise in managing defense policy. 

In his memoir Duty, Gates writes that he felt like a “geezer” in the Obama administration, where many influential appointees below the top level were undergraduates or high school students when he was CIA director.

“Those appointees, drawn mostly from the ranks of former congressional staffers, were all smart, endlessly hardworking, and passionately loyal to the president. What they lacked was firsthand knowledge of real-world governing,” he wrote. 

Hagel reportedly grew frustrated with the NSC’s micromanagement, “endless gab sessions” and for taking too long to make decisions, such as providing Ukraine with even non-lethal military assistance. 

Experts say the lack of experience in managing defense policy has led to a reactive posture and perpetual crisis management at the NSC. 

“It’s like second graders playing soccer,” a second national security expert said. “They get overly involved in a small number of things, and as a result, large parts of the organization go untended.” 

The president has relied heavily on McDonough, his chief of staff and former deputy national security adviser, Susan Rice, national security adviser and diplomat, and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, when making foreign policy decisions. 

Candidates to replace Hagel might want assurances from Obama that they will not be steamrolled by his closest aides in national security debates, defense experts said.

“The question is not why the White House can’t keep a Defense secretary for two years, it’s what quality of person the White House can get,” said the national security expert.

“What does the president need to do to recruit the best possible talent, when two people on his short list have withdrawn themselves from consideration?” the expert said, referring to Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of Defense, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Former Defense officials said interactions between Obama aides and the Pentagon have displayed a disconnect in several instances recently.

When the White House announced in June a plan to train and equip Syrian rebels, for example, the Pentagon did not yet have a plan, the money, or the authority in place to undertake such a program.

Similarly, the Office of Management and Budget took so long to approve final 2015 Defense budget numbers that the Pentagon was forced to submit its budget request to Congress without factoring in the White House’s higher top line, causing confusion about the discrepancy. 

The typical policy disagreements and tensions between the Pentagon and the White House have “not been all that well-managed,” the former military officer said.

“The NSC has grown too powerful, and tried to centralize decision-making power. It should not be a substitute for the departments of Defense and State,” he said. 

“What they need is a fairly forceful secretary of Defense. But the president should look hard at the NSC and look hard to make sure the secretary of Defense is empowered.”

Changes inside the NSC staff don’t appear to be forthcoming. As Hagel’s resignation was announced last week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president was happy with his national security team. 

“I can tell you that the president is very proud of the important work [that] members of his national security team have been conducting over the last couple of years,” Earnest said.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Defense official and resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, predicted tensions between Obama’s White House and the Pentagon would remain for the rest of his term.

“The president prefers a minimalist approach. He always wants to split the baby, half the forces, take the middle road, the half measure,” Eaglen said.

“It’s a problem with no solution.”