President Obama has now lost his third Secretary of Defense in a six-year period, the latest in a series of unusually short-tenured leaders at the Pentagon. There are widespread reports that Chuck Hagel was frustrated by interference and micromanagement from the White House – a pathology of the Obama administration that was described in detail by Robert Gates. It appears that Hagel has been essentially marginalized in the Administration due to disagreements with President over US policy toward ISIS, Russia and China (in other words: all major policy issues). It seems as if President Obama considers the National Security Advisor to have responsibility for the country’s defense and military portfolios, while the Secretary of Defense is a bureaucratic functionary to execute orders and keep the Pentagon in line. It was recently revealed that Hagel authored a letter detailing his criticisms of the Administration’s Syria policy; the recipient was not his boss, President Obama, but Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor.
Apart from any actual strategic disagreement between the Pentagon and the President, this dysfunctional command and control arrangement can be largely understood in light of the President’s background in academia. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the military is an obsessive topic in the political science and constitutional law departments of America’s universities, where Eisenhower’s warnings about the “military-industrial complex” are repeated ad nauseam as a form of secular prophesy. Naturally, these discussions do not concern strategic issues such as the military’s proper structure or employment, but rather how a democratic society is to maintain control over a massive, professionalized, all-volunteer force. At one extreme are dark and outlandish fears about a coup led by a reactionary and anachronistic military. Most attention goes to the more prosaic issues of bureaucratic insubordination and the growing disconnect between the military and the society it defends. But for a professor on his way the White House, the lesson is clear: the military is going to be a political problem.
Thus, when the President receives strategic pushback from the Pentagon, he does not engage with it on a policy level, but rather interprets it as the runaway insubordination he was warned of som many times back in the academy. From the Wall Street Journal:
“The White House fears what the Pentagon is going to say and do. The Pentagon fears how the White House will react. Both sides are nervous of the other,” said a longtime Pentagon official. “It has persisted through three secretaries now – Gates, Panetta and Hagel – and it will probably persist through a fourth secretary.”
This paranoia extends to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Even if he was a personal confidante of the President – as Hagel was – the first disagreement between them is considered symptomatic of the dreaded bureaucratic capture, and from that point on the Secretary will be marginalized (if political considerations forbid his outright dismissal) while the more politically reliable – but strategically incompetent – commissars on the National Security Council staff intrude directly into the management of the DoD.
I am very sympathetic to the President’s inclination to avoid becoming further entangled in the Syrian quagmire. But he needs to articulate his policy more clearly than just “I’m the President. I’m in charge. You’re not.” He also needs to realize that policy tussles over policy and strategy do not constitute insubordination or rogue bureaucracy.
Civilian control of the military is a foundational plank of the Republic. Without it, America ceases to be. But a paranoid overzealousness in its enforcement has contributed to the dysfunctional strategy of this Administration.