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.
Despite his extraordinary achievements, McMaster’s career hit a ceiling: As a colonel in 2006 and again in 2007, the Army promotion board passed him over for the rank of brigadier general, prompting Secretary Gates to step in. By helping to arrange for General Petraeus—a McMaster booster—to return from Iraq and take charge of the 2008 promotion board, Gates ensured that McMaster and others whose careers he wished to advance were promoted. The same special board also promoted Colonel Sean MacFarland, the architect of the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Ramadi (today he is a major general). There was no precedent for a combatant commander being brought back from a war theater to facilitate a promotion. But an assertive defense secretary using his extraordinary powers could make it happen. Soon after, McMaster was assigned to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, where he helped shape Army doctrine in ways that are likely to endure for decades.
That high-level military appointments have pivotal consequences for the way in which America fights its wars is reflected in the fact that all General Officer appointments are technically presidential appointments. However, it has been rare for a president to get directly involved except in extraordinary circumstances—e.g., Presidents Bush and Obama picking General Petraeus for command in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. More often, the president rubber-stamps the selections of the secretary and the Joint Chiefs. In fact, the U.S. Code states that “the Secretary of Defense shall inform the President of the qualifications needed by an officer.” So in addition to winnowing down the list of possible candidates for a command and making a recommendation, the secretary of defense provides the president with the criteria and parameters for each hire.
These recommendations have great bearing on the advice the president receives on war and national security matters. The president receives briefings from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and from the secretary of defense. The chairman relies on the Joint Staff for his advice. The secretary relies on his own extensive staff, almost all of which he selects without serious White House involvement. The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) personnel provide the secretary with the information, intelligence findings, and analysis that inform the advice he gives to the president. The makeup of the OSD matters tremendously, and that makeup typically reflects the predilections of the secretary, not the White House. For good or ill, OSD personnel is DoD policy.
The secretary of defense’s authority extends beyond personnel and deployments. Given his essential role in developing the defense budget, he determines the weapons and support that will be available to our troops once they are deployed. The White House can (and often does) set top-line figures for defense spending. It does not, however, write the actual budget, which emerges from painful negotiations within the services and then among the services, with the secretary as the final arbiter. Should we cut troops to fund airplanes? Should we buy more F-22s or proceed with research on ground vehicles? How many Patriot antimissile batteries should we field? These are all questions that the secretary will answer—and with which the White House will rarely if ever get involved.
In the mid-1970s, with the Soviet Union extending its quantitative edge in materiel, Secretary Harold Brown tasked William Perry, then undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, with ensuring America’s qualitative edge through a project that evolved into a bold bet on “invisible” aircraft. As Perry explained at a 2003 conference at Stanford University, “I saw immediately that this so-called stealth technology, if successful, would give the U.S. Air Force an overwhelming advantage. . . . So I told the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] that it would have all the resources needed to prove out the concept as quickly as possible.” Six months later the team had test flown a scale-model aircraft. In 1977, Brown put the full weight of his office behind the program, bringing in the Air Force to work jointly with DARPA and build a new stealth bomber within just four years—an incredibly ambitious feat which was achieved as planned by the time Brown left office in 1981.
As Perry noted, “when this technology was being introduced into the military arena, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was considerable skepticism that it would really be effective.” But thanks to the vision of an assertive secretary of defense, the commitment to pursue stealth technology in the 1970s led to technological innovations such as our current drone capabilities that have proven vital for U.S. military superiority in the decades since.
Of course decisions on development cut both ways. The secretary of defense has the power to kill multibillion-dollar projects that he believes represent a drag on the budget. He does so with minimal White House oversight. Consider the A-12 Avenger II, a proposed carrier-based stealth bomber replacement for the A-6 Intruder. Its development—begun under President Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, in 1984—was plagued by ever-expanding costs and delays. In December 1990 Secretary Dick Cheney asked the Navy to justify a program that had cost some $5 billion. Dissatisfied with the response, Cheney pulled the plug. As he explained at the time, “It was not an easy decision to make. . . . But no one could tell me how much the program was going to cost . . . or when it would be available.” Decisions on technology, on systems and weaponry, on the range of capabilities that the U.S. military will have available going forward are decisions often made by the defense secretary alone.
The most that can be said in favor of Chuck Hagel’s nomination is that his hands will be tied, that he won’t have much scope to affect policy. But no one should be under any illusions: If Chuck Hagel becomes secretary of defense, he will be captain of the Pentagon ship, choosing its crew and charting its course. The decisions he makes on the job will have tremendous consequences for the wars America fights today, and perhaps an even greater impact on the wars which America might fight in the future. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, like every secretary of defense before him, will be a consequential policymaker, for better or for worse.
Dan Senor is cofounder of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served as a Department of Defense official based in Doha and Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.