Analysis 29-11-2014



Hagel Leaving Defense Department:

What’s Next?

In a surprise move, it was announced on Monday that Secretary of Defense Hagel had resigned from Obama’s Administration.  This major resignation in Obama’s national security team raises a lot of questions:  Who will be his successor, what will their policies be, and how well will he be able to influence Obama?

But one question that everyone in Washington is asking is if Hagel resigned voluntary or was pushed?

Hagel, a former Republican senator was Obama’s attempt at bipartisanship in his cabinet.  The problem was that Hagel’s Republican credentials kept him outside Obama’s inner circle of policy makers.  Nor, did it help that Hagel (who opposed the American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq) wasn’t well regarded by his Republican counterparts in the Senate.

Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, who is considered by his republican colleagues the Senate expert on national defense, was critical of Hagel, who was a senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran.  McCain was one of Hagel’s toughest critics during his nomination fight in early 2013. “I don’t believe [Hagel] is qualified,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press at the time.

It was Democrats and others backing Obama that were Hagel’s biggest supporters.  Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (who later broke the Snowden/NSA story) called criticism of Hagel part of a “smear campaign” headed by the pro-Israel lobby. “Hagel is one of the very, very few prominent national politicians from either party who has been brave enough to question and dissent from the destructive bipartisan orthodoxies on foreign policy,” Greenwald wrote. “If this nomination actually happens, this will be one of Obama’s best appointments and boldest steps of his presidency.”

Former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski said Hagel, “would infuse into our foreign policy what is very much needed . . . strategic significance — that is to say, a preoccupation with the problems that we’re slowly, collectively sliding into.” Former secretary of state Colin Powell called Hagel “superbly qualified,” claiming he’d do a “great job as secretary of defense.”

But, what did lead to Hagel’s resignation?  The White House said that it was Hagel’s incompetence in handling the DoD, especially in failing to react to ISIS.  “When Secretary Hagel was first nominated for this job . . . the threat that was posed by ISIL was not nearly as significant as it is now,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told the Daily Mail.

However, Hagel’s most notable disagreement with Obama, was on this issue.  And Hagel was right.  Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” contradicting the Obama’s comments months before that the group was simply ‘junior varsity.”

Ironically, the White House is using the fact that ISIS is definitely not a JV team to justify Hagel’s ouster. “Another secretary might be better suited to meet those challenges,” as White House press secretary Earnest put it.​

The White House tried to make the decision look less like a firing than a mutual agreed upon separation.  White House press secretary Josh Earnest refused to answer whether Chuck Hagel was fired, steadfastly repeating the vague assertion that he’s leaving based on “conversations” between the defense secretary and the president.

“Did Chuck Hagel indicate, in these conversations, a desire to stay on?” NPR’s Mara Liasson asked Earnest on Monday.

“Um — well, again, this is a decision that the two of them arrived at together,” the press secretary responded. “I’m not aware of sort of, the twists and turns of the conversation they’ve had over the past month.”

Behind the scenes, however, White House officials were clearer.  According to a Fox News report, “Make no mistake, Secretary Hagel was fired,” a senior U.S. official with close knowledge of the situation told Fox News.  This same official discounted Pentagon claims it was a mutual decision claiming President Obama has lost confidence in Hagel and that the White House had been planning to announce his exit for weeks.

“The president felt he had to fire someone. He fired the only Republican in his cabinet. Who is that going to piss off that he cares about?”

In a swipe at the resume of Hagel, who served as U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam and received two Purple Hearts, the official added, “This is why you don’t send a sergeant to do a secretary’s job.”

However, onetime critic Senator McCain told of a Secretary of Defense shut out of the decision making.  McCain said that retiring defense secretary Chuck Hagel was “very, very frustrated” with the White House, with the Arizona Republican claiming that Hagel was shut out of many policy decisions by President Obama’s inner circle.

McCain spoke Monday with Phoenix-area radio station KFYI about Hagel’s resignation, which McCain seems to believe was made under duress. “I can tell you, he was in my office last week [and] he was very frustrated,” he said, citing the turmoil throughout the globe and a reluctance of the Obama administration to address it.

“Already the White House people are leaking, ‘Well, he wasn’t up to the job,’” McCain continued. “Believe me, he was up to the job. It was the job he was given, where he really was never really brought into that real tight circle inside the White House that makes all the decisions — which has put us into the incredible debacle that we’re in today throughout the world.”

In the end, it wasn’t about Hagel’s abilities as much as it was the decisions being made by the Obama inner circle – decisions that Hagel had to implement, but didn’t have any input into.  He had clearly warned about ISIS and Syria, but to no avail.  According to the New York Times, “White House officials also expressed annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr. Hagel sent to Ms. Rice (National Security Advisor) last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad.

This problem with the inner circle of the White House was also reported in Politico.  Politico reports that “Hagel’s main gripe, according to people close to him, was what he viewed as a disorganized National Security Council run by Ricea criticism shared by [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough, according to a senior administration official.” Politico also points out that in this respect, Hagel was no outlier; his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, shared this concern.”

This opinion is also shared in the Washington think tank community.  Defense News interviewed Aaron David Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state and now vice president of the Wilson Center. He said Obama “dominates [and] doesn’t delegate. . . . [Obama] is probably the most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon.”

The problem is that Obama shows no signs of having Nixon’s skill in foreign policy. As his policies fail to produce the results he seeks, Obama’s instinct is to listen to loyal White House aides and push away dissenting voices. Hagel is the third defense secretary to suffer that fate.

Robert Gates and Leon Panetta “didn’t toe the party line, so the White House people weren’t happy,” Korb tells Defense News. “So pushed out is what they got. Now, this is what Hagel got, too.”

If the problem is that decisions are made in the White House without input by the SecDef, the question is, “Is there any potential SecDef that can influence policy made in the White House?”

The Future

Given the tensions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and on the Chinese periphery, Obama is unlikely to take long in naming a successor.  However, the political chemistry has changed.

The new SecDef nominee will have to face a Republican Senate, which has many questions about national security policy and the future of a rapidly shrinking military.  And, the spear point of that nomination fight will be Arizona Senator John McCain, a retired Naval Officer and the Senate’s expert on National Defense issues.  As Obama’s constant thorn on issues like supporting Syrian Rebels and fighting ISIS, McCain will use these hearing to highlight administration failings.

McCain will also make an issue of Hagel’s decision to eliminate the A-10 close support aircraft.  The A-10 has proved useful in the Middle East as a close air support weapon and is stationed in McCain’s home state.  It is the world’s premier tank buster and it had been scheduled for elimination as the threat of a major tank war in Europe faded.

However, as Russia and its tank armies become a growing threat, the A-10 is seen as a potential tool to counter Russian advances in Eastern Europe.  Expect the A-10 to be retained.

The issue of ISIS will also be a major topic at any hearings.  The issue will revolve around three questions:  Will advisers go into combat? (Yes.) Will American aid flow directly to the Sunni and Kurdish tribes instead of through the government in Baghdad? (This will probably be a frustrating compromise.) Will America insist upon a status-of-forces agreement so that they stay for the long term? (A necessity to keep Baghdad out of the orbit of Iran.)

Who will the next SecDef be?

Broadly speaking, Obama has two choices – a politician or a bureaucrat.  Each has their advantages and disadvantages.

A politician, especially a senator, would have an easier time getting through the Senate nominating process, which would get him in place quicker, without the crippling hearings.

The problem is that Obama may have a hard time finding s politician willing to take on the task.  The Obama foreign and defense policy is collapsing and few politicians with any future plans will be willing to head into that firestorm.  With only two years remaining, there is little potential for formulating a strong agenda.  Rather, the position will consist of fighting policy failures over the globe, while keeping a hostile Republican Congress informed.  On the other hand, a political figure with some weight would definitely help in the Congress.

There are some prominent political names being mentioned.  A more centrist, if not right wing, defense choice from the political side would be former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.  Another name being mentioned is Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State.

A Lieberman choice would probably sail through the Republican Senate.  Lieberman is a strong supporter of Israel and a good friend of the future Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Senator McCain.  Although Lieberman wouldn’t reflect Obama’s national security ideals, the choice would probably be the best political choice as it would give him the best liaison with Congress on defense and national security matters.  It would also signal that Obama is willing to hear options from outside his own inner circle.

The other broad option is to pick a policy oriented person with knowledge of the defense bureaucracy.  Although they would not help in the legislative battles, they would more likely fit into Obama’s broad national security policy.

The four names that emerged early in the top running were former under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy, founder and chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a D.C. think tank; former deputy secretary of defense Ashton Carter; and current deputy secretary of defense Robert Work. Also in the mix is John Hamre, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a longtime D.C. player as well as former deputy secretary of defense.

Michele Flournoy was seen as the front runner until she withdrew her name from consideration on Tuesday.  She is currently the chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security, a left wing think tank (in the American context) that the Obama administration relied heavily upon in developing national security policy. Many think she has the inside track as Obama wanted to appoint her earlier, but settled for Hagel instead.  However, she asked not to be considered for health and family reasons.

But there may have been other reasons since Flourney comes with considerable baggage.  She co-founded CNAS in 2007, and served as its president until 2009, when she took her under secretary job.  Since CNAS has published many papers on national security policy that have later been taken up by the Obama Administration, she will have to defend these policies and their failures during her nominations.  As a result, her confirmation hearings may have been used to focus on Obama foreign policy failures.

Another choice is Robert Work, who is currently the deputy defense secretary, and has previously served as undersecretary of the Navy. Work, a retired Marine colonel, also served as the CEO of CNAS before the Senate confirmed him in his present position in April.

As a former CNAS alumni, Work also has to face critical questions about Obama policy failures.  He also will be questioned about his work on the Defense Department budget and several questionable priorities that the Senate will not agree with.  And, as chairman of the Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group, he will need to answer questions about several scandals concerning military personnel working with nuclear weapons and the overall condition of the aging arsenal.

Another choice is Ashton Carter, who served as the Pentagon’s No. 2 official from October 2011 until December 2013, and stepped down after being bypassed in favor of Hagel for the job.

What is interesting is that in the first few hours of the vacancy at the Department of Defense, two top choices, Reed and Flournoy pulled their names from consideration, which seems to indicate that few top people see any benefit to serving two years in a job that has little access to Obama or his inner circle.  As the National Review reported, “Why should anyone put up with those headaches and not even have full command of your department?” asks one leading Democratic defense analyst I spoke with. He said the White House’s need to micromanage the national-security apparatus is notorious in Washington.”

Future policy will depend on who is picked and their relationship with Obama and his inner circle.  Lieberman, would be the least likely to adhere to the Obama doctrine, and with considerable bipartisan support from the Congress, would strike a more pro-Israel stance as well as push for more assistance to Iraq and the Syrian rebels.

Work is an alumnus of one of Obama’s favorite Washington think tanks – one that has articulated many Obama Administration policies.  Although he would bring some of his own perspective to the job, he is most likely to adhere to current Obama national security principles.  Meanwhile, someone like Ashton Carter, would probably fall between Lieberman and Work in terms of how they would relate to Obama and his inner circle.

Which brings us back to the main ingredient in America’s national security policy – Obama and his inner circle.  While detail and minutia can be controlled by the SecDef, ultimately, major policy decisions must go to the White House and be vetted by Obama and the Inner Circle – an inner circle that has become smaller and tighter in the last six years.

This means that decisions on the war against ISIS, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Syrian civil war, or unrest throughout the region will not face much deviation no matter who the new SecDef will be.  While Lieberman will have the political power to speak up against Obama, it will not change matters anymore than Hagel’s warnings about ISIS forced a policy reversal by Obama.

Which brings us back to the question we asked earlier in the analysis, “Is there any potential SecDef that can influence White House policy?”

Unfortunately, no.

Although each of the potential nominees have serious credentials, none have displayed the most important characteristic necessary for an effective SecDef in the Obama Administration – the ability to join the Inner Circle and become a major influence in national security policy making.  In the end, like Hagel, they will find themselves outside the real decision making circle and forced to defend and react to the White House decisions.

While their tenure may be longer than Hagel’s, it will not be any more satisfying or successful.



Nuclear Negotiations with Iran: U.S. Must Avoid a Rush to Failure

By James Phillips

Heritage Foundation

November 22, 2014

Issue Brief #4304

The November 24 deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran is fast approaching, with no sign that a deal that would advance U.S. national security interests can be reached by that date. After almost a year of negotiations, Iran has won international acceptance of its once-covert uranium enrichment facilities and obtained substantial sanctions relief in exchange for symbolic and incremental concessions that can easily be withdrawn, as Tehran has done in the past. The Obama Administration, eager to conclude a deal to salvage a foreign policy “legacy,” has already made so many concessions on relaxing sanctions that it has undermined its own bargaining leverage as it seeks to close a deal. There is a real danger that if the Administration makes too many concessions, the legacy it leaves behind will be an Iran on the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Read more



The Vice President’s Difficult Trip to Turkey

By Bulent Aliriza

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Nov 20, 2014

On November 21, Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Istanbul for a two day visit during which he will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. According to a November 18 White House briefing prior to his departure on the three nation trip that will conclude in Turkey, “the Vice President will discuss cooperation in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq; coping with the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflicts on Turkey’s southern border and countering the threat posed by foreign fighters.” While the focus would be on countering ISIS, “promoting the Cyprus settlement process and other regional issues” would also be on the agenda.  Mr. Biden’s high profile trip will be the most recent effort in the ongoing U.S. campaign to persuade Turkey to give greater support in the fight against ISIS which has established brutal control over much of Syria as well as portions of Iraq. Although it is clear that Turkey’s contribution has not been at the level the U.S. would have liked, U.S. officials have been generally reluctant to publicize their disappointment. Instead they have chosen to emphasize areas of convergence and to downplay fundamental divergences.

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Iran Nuclear Talks Extended, Again

By George Perkovich

Carnegie Endowment

November 25, 2014

Iran and world powers agreed to extend negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program after a comprehensive deal proved elusive as the latest deadline approached. In a new Q&A, George Perkovich details where the talks stand and analyzes what lies ahead. Perkovich says Washington and its allies should strategically continue patient diplomacy unless Iran resumes provocative nuclear activities.

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Tunisia’s Security Challenge

By Lina Khatib

Carnegie Endowment

November 26, 2014


As Tunisia prepares to enter a new phase in its process of democratization, with the election of a new president and the formation of a new cabinet following the successful parliamentary elections held in October, two key challenges face the country’s government: the economy and security.  Those two problems are related in Tunisia; as one journalist I spoke to while I was there last month told me, “the fate of many young Tunisians is suicide: Those who used to kill themselves through trying to reach Europe illegally by sea are now killing themselves by joining jihadist groups.” Indeed, the question on everyone’s lips during my trip was, how come thousands of Tunisians are fighting in Syria today?

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After Hagel
By James Robbins

American Foreign Policy Council
November 25, 2014

U.S. News & World Report

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was reportedly eased out of the Pentagon because President Barack Obama did not think he was the right man for the job. But finding the right person to replace him will require clear thinking from the White House on the dangerous state of the world.  When Hagel assumed defense leadership in February 2013, his job was to bring a declining department in for a soft landing. He was to oversee the end of the war in Afghanistan, make smart cuts in the defense budget, downside overall force levels, cancel unnecessary weapons contracts and reduce American force commitments overseas. From the vantage point of the beginning of Obama’s second term, defense was to play a secondary role; the emphasis would be on domestic policy.

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Iran’s Nuclear Politics and Missed Opportunities 

By Haleh Esfandiari and Robert S. Litwak

Wilson Center

November 25, 2014

Already, the extension of nuclear talks announced Monday is being portrayed in Iran as a victory for its negotiating team. In a televised interview Monday night, President Hasan Rouhani made clear that Iran would not stop its centrifuges or give up its technology. What’s been agreed to is, indeed, a bonus for Tehran as its government continues to access about $700 million a month from its frozen assets.  Western negotiators and Iran had more than a year to reach a comprehensive deal. Despite repeated assertions that Nov. 24 was a firm deadline, it seems that neither side took the date seriously. The Iranian negotiating team had its instructions and stuck to its position, even though no reprieve in the sanctions regime was offered. The Iranians know that the U.S. Senate will change hands in January and that it would be very difficult for the Obama administration to work with a Republican majority whose members have been skeptical of negotiations throughout the process. It is hard to see how the next seven months are to produce a change of mind among Iran’s leaders, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that 14 months of negotiations have failed to bring about.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor 

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