In September 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin received a request from the U.S. commander in Somalia for extra tanks, armored vehicles, and AC-130 Spectre gunships to support U.S. operations in Mogadishu. Aspin refused the request. The White House was not involved in the decision. Days later, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in Mogadishu, some 84 were wounded, two U.S. choppers were shot down, and one pilot was captured. Aspin, who later conceded he had erred in denying the commander’s request, appeared weak when responding to detailed questions during a congressional hearing. His resignation followed less than a year into his hapless tour running the Pentagon.
Myriad concerns have been raised about Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, including his voting record, impolitic statements, two unremarkable Senate terms, scant management experience, and embarrassing performance at his confirmation hearing last month. Yet Hagel’s defenders dismiss these concerns because, they argue, the important decisions are made at the White House, by the president and his team.
“After all,” said Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), “the president is the one who sets policy.” White House press secretary Jay Carney is similarly sanguine that Hagel “will implement all of the president’s policies with regard to the Defense Department.” Indeed, at last month’s committee hearing Hagel himself said, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.” Fear not, Hagel’s defenders say, Secretary Hagel won’t be given keys to the car.
This view wildly understates the role of America’s most important cabinet officer. Much of a defense secretary’s work is at his own discretion. He is responsible for military budgets and procurement, personnel promotions, public diplomacy, the Pentagon’s relations with defense ministries and militaries around the world, tactical military movements, and most force deployments. When a commander asks for an additional unit or capability—as with Les Aspin in Somalia, with Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even with Leon Panetta in Benghazi—the request lands on the secretary’s desk. And more often than not, it is the secretary, not the president, who makes the call.
Such heavy responsibility is in the nature of the job. The secretary of defense is the second in the military chain of command (below the president and above the combatant commanders). He actively maneuvers the nation’s armed forces, relying on his own judgment within the broad boundaries of White House strategy. In the early years of the Iraq war, for example, Donald Rumsfeld micromanaged deployment schedules, taking units down to the platoon level out of the deployment to emphasize his desire for “light footprint” operations. This policy decision, which was Rumsfeld’s to make, contributed to the security vacuum in Iraq.
In his memoir, General Stanley McChrystal describes the weekly meeting with Rumsfeld to review and seek approval for deployment orders (DEPORD): “Page by page, the secretary scrutinized each DEPORD, often asking pointed questions on its importance to the mission and timing of the deployment,” wrote McChrystal. “Without question, the secretary’s intractability forced the military to be more flexible.”
The defense secretary’s reach into personnel appointments is no less consequential. The case of Major General H. R. McMaster is instructive. McMaster is not a household name, but he has played an outsized role in shaping U.S. military strategy post-9/11. As a colonel leading the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, he experimented with the “clear, hold, build” strategy to fight the insurgency in Tal Afar, a town on the Syrian border that served as a transit point for terrorist arms and funding coming into Iraq. His strategy not only stabilized Tal Afar but also became the proof-of-concept for General David Petraeus’s “surge,” which helped end the shooting war in Iraq, reduce sectarian violence, and pave the way for a U.S. withdrawal.