You will hear a lot between now and when Congress convenes in January about how urgent it is that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s replacement be confirmed by the Senate. The president will nominate someone and then shrug his shoulders at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, noting that things aren’t going well, and asking, “What do you expect? The Republicans are to blame because they haven’t confirmed the new defense secretary.”
It will all be baloney, of course, because we know that the secretary of defense’s job has been neutered by Obama’s White House team and it will remain so as long as he’s president.
We know this from any number of factual emanations from the administration, not the least of which was former defense secretary Bob Gates’s memoir, Duty, in which he whinged at great length about how all national security decisions were made by the president himself or his White House National Security Council. There is no evidence to show that the White House gave Hagel any greater authority or leeway, and there is no reason to expect that his successor will find any change.
So when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized that, “Given the importance of the issues handled by the secretary of defense, most Americans would probably prefer to hear that Mr. Hagel is leaving President Barack Obama’s Cabinet over policy differences and not some personal dispute,” we have to shake our heads and wonder if its editors have any idea of what is actually going on in Washington, or how America’s national defense decisions are being made.
If they had a clue, they’d know that it will always be easy for Obama — or any president — to find a willing patsy to take a cabinet post — any cabinet post — regardless of the White House’s denizens arrogating all the post’s authority and prerogatives to themselves. The prestige of a cabinet post will always be enough to attract precisely the kind of people you don’t want on those jobs. Which is how Hagel was chosen originally: he wasn’t picked because he possessed a towering intellect and knowledge of the world of defense.
Hagel was picked because he was less intelligent and even more malleable than Gates had been, and so he proved to be. He wasn’t removed from his post because he didn’t do everything he’d been told to do: he was fired because Obama wanted a smarter, higher-profile and more eloquent spokesman at the Pentagon who could defend his indefensible policy decisions for the last two years of his presidency. Hagel’s limitations suited Obama’s decisions while he involved us in Iraq again without a strategy that would defeat ISIS decisively, cut the military and intelligence budgets even more, and kept us on the downward slope from superpower to a nation that cannot influence important events abroad.
Obama will nominate Hagel’s successor from a pool that contains his most faithful adherents but limited to those among them who can fill the role of outspoken advocate that Hagel couldn’t. They will have to defend the continued flow of national security decisions that are simultaneously wrong-headed, damaging to our national security (and that of our allies), and corrosive. An enormously corrosive action was taken last week that has entirely slipped by the media.
Since he became president, Obama has been eroding our ability to defeat the ideology that propels Islamic terrorism. Years ago, he rid our national security policy documents of terms such as “jihad” and “Islam.” By forcing those terms out of the decision process, he has managed to limit his subordinates’ thinking (and too much of America) to believe that idiotic statements, such has his insistence that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria isn’t Islamic, can be true.
Since 9-11, we’ve viewed terrorists — correctly, under the Geneva Convention’s definitions — as illegal enemy combatants. Article IV of the Convention says that legal combatants are those who are: (a) commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance (such as wearing uniforms); (c) carry arms openly; and (d) conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Terrorists that do none of those things should be regarded as outside the protections of the Convention.
Last week, the Joint Chiefs announced a new policy that eliminates the term “illegal enemy combatants” from our lexicon and thus from the thinking of our national security policymakers. Terrorists are now to be regarded as “unprivileged enemy belligerents.” This is above and beyond absurd. Protesters shouting about their cause du jour are belligerents. Terrorists who, inter alia, hack the heads off hostages are operating contrary to the law of war and thus have to be labeled as enemies and combatants who operate illegally. But Obama’s thinking runs contrary to the law of war, and it is dutifully parroted by the Pentagon in its policies. The new defense secretary will have to be a political tool who can defend this idiocy.
People such as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson would fit Obama’s bill to succeed Hagel. Others — such as Air Force Secretary Debbie Lee James, who could be the first female secretary of defense — could be chosen because they might draw political fire that would otherwise be aimed at Obama. Soon-to-be former Sen. Mary Landrieu could do the same. Whoever it is, the choice will be entirely political. It should be treated as such by the Republicans in the confirmation hearings. And it would be but for the fact that, unless Obama tries to jam a confirmation hearing into the lame duck session, come January the new Senate Armed Services Committee chairman will be Sen. John McCain.
McCain will be eighty years old when he runs for a sixth Senate term in 2016. He has been the principal Republican spokesman on defense matters throughout the Obama presidency not because he’s had a track record of being right, but because the media have made him so, intentionally ignoring senators and congressmen who more eloquently — and reliably — espouse conservative positions.
Sen. McCain can be relied on to grandstand ineffectually as he has for decades. He will mis-focus the confirmation hearing on issues that appeal to his neoconservative mindset, such as Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the pending withdrawal from Afghanistan, about which the nominee will know nothing. McCain is a longtime pal of Hagel, so he’ll spend a lot of time criticizing Obama’s firing of his old friend. He’ll try to drag out of the nominee criticism of Obama’s non-strategy against ISIS without once asking the only important questions, which are how do you define victory over ISIS and how will Obama’s strategy produce it?
Instead of being subjected to McCain’s grandstanding, the nominee should have to defend Obama’s actions — in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, on cutting military spending — and much more. How will the nominee repair the damage done by these policies? On what basis does the nominee believe that he — or more likely she — will be able to penetrate Obama’s inner circle as defense secretary and actually perform the job? Those questions won’t be answered, and probably won’t even be asked.
However the nominee performs, he will be confirmed and be able to retire in place in the big office in the Pentagon’s E Ring. It’s a big job with a lot of perks that anyone who is comfortable with ineffectuality could enjoy. Over the next two years, it won’t be possible for anyone to restore the position to its proper stature and functions within the cabinet. You can bet that Obama will nominate someone who won’t even try.