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Hagel's Successor Has a Tough Task Ahead
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) speaks as President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden look on during a press conference announcing Hagel's resignation, November 24, 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Hagel's Successor Has a Tough Task Ahead

Arthur Herman

The departure — most insiders are saying the forced departure — of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense on Monday may have come as a surprise, but the way it was done certainly wasn’t.

A competent White House would have used the president’s announcement to name a successor. The fact that a final choice is still up in the air conveys an air of improvisation and futility that’s been the hallmark of Obama foreign and defense policy (likewise the announcement that same day that Secretary of State John Kerry’s much heralded final deal with Iran is stalled again).

There’s plenty of speculation about who will be the new Secretary of Defense, and plenty of candidates — from Michelle Flournoy, CEO of the Center for New American Security who would be the first woman SecDef, to Hagel’s current deputy Robert Work, even former Sen. Joe Lieberman.

But the bald truth is whoever is Hagel’s successor will have an almost insuperable task ahead of him or her — and not all of it has been Hagel’s fault.

Thanks to Obama’s maladroitness, for the first time since the Korean War the United States military has to prepare for simultaneous conventional threats from Russia and China. American policy-makers since Nixon and Kissinger have been able to triangulate our relationship with our two superpower rivals.

When the Soviet Union began its massive naval buildup in the 1970s’ and invaded Afghanistan, China was preoccupied with the aftermath of its Cultural Revolution; when China began to be a growing military threat in the early 2000’s, Russia was still in shock from the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Now Putin has been aggressively rebuilding Russia’s armed might as well as trying to restore the its lost Soviet empire, while China relentlessly bullies its neighbors in East and South China Seas and increasingly flexes its military muscles, including a growing arsenal of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Meanwhile, under Obama, the Pentagon’s budget has been steadily shrinking — in real terms by nearly $500 billion in Obama-mandated cuts and by another $500 billion from sequestration. Our Army has been shrinking to pre-World War II levels and the Navy to pre-World War I levels — while our Air Force has been buying fewer new planes than it did when Orville Wright was its chief supplier.

An active and conscientious SecDef will have to reverse that process. He or she can’t expect any help from the White House or its National Security staff — they’ve been presiding over this military train wreck since 2009. Instead, Hagel’s successor will want to reach out to the new Republican Congress and those who understand the real cost of defense cuts in terms of national security and military readiness, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the chairs of the House Armed Services and Appropriations Committees, in order to restore the cuts imposed by sequestration and halt the stream of pink slips being sent to our serving men and women, especially officers, whom we will desperately need in rebuilding a post-Obama military.

Then there’s what to do about the the Islamic State and the twin crises in Iraq and Syria. The current Obama strategy is really a non-strategy. As Kimberly Kagan of the Institute For the Study of War has pointed out, there’s been too little happening in terms of air strikes — the US has hit only 334 targets in Iraq and Syria in the seven weeks since the first bombs were dropped in August, compared to the 17,500 we hit in the ten week air campaign that defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 — and nothing in terms of putting troops or even special operators on the ground, which will be the real key to stiffening Iraqi forces including the Kurdish militia, and for eventual victory there.

Making things worse is that we have no coherent policy in Syria, as we sit helplessly by and let Assad’s loyalist forces take out the Free Syrian Army we’re counting on to fight ISIS. Chuck Hagel pointed this out in a memo he wrote in October — a memo that infuriated the White House and helped to set the stage for his ouster.

A strong and effective SecDef will have to revisit that issue, and also putting real U.S. combat troops on the ground in Iraq. This is no longer an issue of refighting “Bush’s war” — it’s about preventing a meltdown of the entire region.

Likewise in Afghanistan where Secretary Hagel did one thing right, by extending the stay of US troops there in order to prevent a repeat of what’s unfolding in Iraq.

Unfortunately, his successor will have to defend that policy, and every other sensible decision, against a White House national security staff who still see the disarming of America as a good thing. All the same, a new SecDef who is willing to stand up for our armed services and for the defense of America and our allies, will not only earn the gratitude of our men and women in uniform and the respect of Congress, but the gratitude of his country and the respect of history.

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