Former sergeant, senator and soon to be ex-secretary of defense Chuck Hagel is about to leave a nearly two year-long confinement inside the looking glass. Having relinquished a distinguished professorship at Georgetown University and the chairmanship of Washington D.C.'s prestigious Atlantic Council to join the Obama administration, this Vietnam veteran was brought down by unfriendly fire emanating from the White House. Whatever reasons President Barack Obama (and his inner clique) may have had for changing secretaries in mid-stream, this dismissal and the way it was handled are further symptoms of an administration trapped inside a bubble best described as Obamaland.
This administration's ability to govern, or more accurately its failure, is exhibit A that it remains on the wrong side of the looking glass. Foreign policy and national security have been badly damaged in the process. Replacing Chuck Hagel is not a solution or a panacea in bursting this bubble. Nor is blaming a broken Congress an acceptable excuse for an administration so uncomfortable with the meaning of competence.
Similar to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, when the president entered office, he lacked the requisite foreign policy experience, credentials and qualifications for the post. Even the most brilliant of minds cannot be rapidly redirected to master all intricate and complex issues. And the bevy of complicated foreign policy challenges and ongoing crises today test even the most experienced individuals.
New administrations almost always get off to rocky starts. Clinton's ill-advised attempts at reforming health care turned into a fiasco. September 11th provided the pretense for Bush's calamitous decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Unfortunately, a mark of the current administration is incompetence in making and then executing policy. The infamous Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) strategy confused ends, means and priorities. Pakistan not Afghanistan should have been the principal focus. And the subsequent undisciplined manner in which the White House lurched to and fro in deciding to surge forces into Afghanistan was a textbook case of mismanagement.
The roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act could not have been more badly handled. Declaring end dates for U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would have received failing grades at any war college. Imposing "red lines" on Syrian use of chemical weapons and demanding that Bashar al Assad leave office was as fruitless as King Canute ordering the oceans to recede. Accepting Hagel's resignation without first naming a successor, unlike W's concurrent announcement of Robert Gates' replacing out-going Donald Rumsfeld, was mind-boggling in its clumsiness.
Dr. Ashton (Ash) Carter is the choice to succeed Mr. Hagel. Dr. Carter has a strong defense background. He initially served as Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and from 2011 to 2013, he was Mr. Obama's Deputy Defense Secretary. Well liked by the military and the Pentagon civilian staff, Dr. Carter is relatively unknown outside the defense community. Barring the unexpected, Carter should have an easy confirmation process, far easier than Mr. Hagel's which became far too confrontational and emotional when former Senate colleagues turned against him.
Despite his experience, Dr. Carter is inheriting a Pentagon that despite the might of U.S. military power is in grave trouble. Disciplined and sensible planning has been made impossible by "sequestration" cuts that were supposed to slash half a trillion dollars of defense spending from the Pentagon over ten years and the failure of Congress to approve a budget meaning the Department has no idea of what money it will get until the last minute. And inbuilt cost growth is so fierce that if left unchecked, by the end of the decade, it will have soared by about 40% or more mandating that level of reduction in numbers, procurement and readiness to fight assuming no commensurate increase in the Pentagon budget.
The truth is that large problems rest inside the White House which has so centralized control that cabinet officers have been marginalized. For example, the National Security Staff that once numbered a few dozen in the golden years under national security advisors such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, is now in excess of 400 and by some estimates between 500-800. The consequence is exquisite micromanagement across virtually all the executive branch.
Overlay this unworkable scheme with a president who has not yet mastered his job and the results are self-evident. Unless the administration leaps back through the looking glass to the real world, the next two years will be grim. Chuck Hagel's departure will not change that forecast. And neither will Dr. Carter's nomination allow an escape from Obamaland-- no matter his qualifications.