Once upon a time, secretary of defense was something of a prestigious title. But if recent news is any indication, in the twilight of the Obama administration the gig is about as desirable as “chicken sexer” or “sewer inspector.” First, there is the ongoing fallout from former senator Chuck Hagel’s ouster from the job. Last week we learned that Hagel decided to resign a week earlier than the White House wanted him to out of spite. To Hagel’s credit, it appears that part of the friction between him and the White House stemmed from his discomfort with their plans to release more prisoners from Guantánamo. It’s also worth noting that the White House’s foreign policy and military failures are legion and long predate Hagel’s tenure.
Other reports about Hagel have been less flattering, to put it mildly. Longtime military reporter Thomas Ricks noted that there were a lot of people in the Defense Department happy to see Hagel go because of his apparent incompetence and indifference. According to Ricks, he didn’t exactly measure up to the standards set by his two immediate predecessors at the Pentagon. “The 4-5 page briefing papers that Gates devoured, or the two-page memos that satisfied Panetta’s intellectual cravings, were replaced by Hagel’s preferred briefing material: an index card with 25 words on it. Policy papers were still drafted, but Hagel’s inner circle repeatedly made it clear they would never be read,” Ricks reported. In fact, Hagel nearly caused international incidents because he was so unresponsive and ill-prepared for interactions with foreign officials.
It would be nice to have more clarity on what exactly happened, but based on what we know about the Obama White House and Hagel’s general acumen, The Scrapbook is assuming there’s plenty of blame to go around on both sides. In fact, the White House’s behavior toward their nominee to replace Hagel suggests this new relationship is almost doomed before it ever really begins.
Former deputy secretary of defense Ashton Carter has been tapped to replace Hagel. Carter wasn’t exactly a high-profile choice—the headlines The Scrapbook reads about him home in on the piquant details that he’s a theoretical physics Ph.D. who once advocated unilaterally attacking North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which probably doesn’t endear him to the Obama administration. As such, the White House took the extraordinary step of preparing him for the nomination process while letting it be known that they might also give him the hook. “Even on Tuesday, as the final touches were [being put] on the White House plans to announce Carter, still another administration official said the White House was going back one more time to see if there were other possible higher profile candidates,” wrote CNN reporter Barbara Starr last week.
Frankly, we wouldn’t blame Carter if he were to withdraw his name from contention after such reprehensible treatment. If he does stick it out, we hope he rises to the challenges presented by a difficult job. We live in perilous times, regardless of how furiously the White House downplays the threats that are rapidly proliferating. Unfortunately, as long as the Obama administration is in charge, we’re lucky to have anyone in the job, competent or not.