One of the most important appointments President Obama will make in his second term is Secretary of Defense. That's why I'm scratching my head over his pick of Senator Hagel. Mr. Obama needs someone who is a great manager, a great diplomat and great politician at the Pentagon. Hagel is none of these.
So why is the president doing it? Because Hagel is part of President Obama's bigger picture national security team: Kerry to State, White House Counterterrorism Czar Brennan to the CIA, perhaps UN Ambassador Rice to the NSC and Hagel to Defense.
The president's first term appointees were people he needed: Bob Gates at Defense, Hillary Clinton at State, Gen. Jim Jones at NSC.
For the second term, he can choose whomever he wants. And he wants guys he's comfortable with, people he likes and who owe their careers to him. President Obama didn't get his first choice for Secretary of State; he's not going to give up on his first choice for Defense as well.
The president also wants his new team to share his world view: The US should lead from behind; use covert forces and drone strikes instead of the regular military in dealing enemies; lean away from Israel and toward the Muslim Brotherhood Middle East; leave Afghanistan; cut our nuclear stockpile; and do nothing militarily to stop Iran's nuclear program.
But being the president's buddy doesn't guarantee that Senator Hagel will be a successful Secretary of Defense.
For the next four years, the Secretary will have to manage deep and significant defense cuts and do it in a way that doesn't gut the armed forces or endanger America's security. He should reform and streamline the procurement process so we get more bang for our buck. He will have to manage not just the Pentagon, but the defense industrial base. He needs to know how the levers of power work in a building that isn't called "the Puzzle Palace" for nothing. Hagel isn't known as a great manager, nor does he have experience with the defense industry.
And he's not a great diplomat, either. The president's biggest foreign policy challenge in the next four years will be dealing with Israel over Iran. Neither the US nor Israel want a nuclear Iran, but the US and Israel have different red lines they're willing to accept. While President Obama may say, "all options are on the table" in dealing with Iran, the Hagel appointment makes that threat less credible. That, plus Hagel's perceived animosity toward Israel, will push the US and Israel further apart, especially on Iran.
Our national interests may mean we don't see eye to eye, but we need to be in close consultation with Israel so there are no surprises: because while Israel can start a military confrontation with Iran, it can't finish it without US involvement. No one wants another war, but we might stumble into one through miscalculation.
Finally, the next Secretary of Defense needs to be a great politician, especially in dealing with Congress. He will have to prevent end-runs from the military, so they don't lobby long time friends on Capital Hill to reinstate defense programs the president cut. He may need to navigate through the Senate arms reduction treaties with Russia, or a nuclear treaty with Iran. Given the Congressional criticism of Hagel -- from both sides of the political aisle -- it would seem Hagel isn't going to win the Mr. Congeniality award with his former colleagues.
Personally, I agree with some of Hagel's policies. He was right to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It's just that his particular skill set isn't what is needed right now at the Pentagon.
But as the president is fond of saying, elections have consequences. And one of them is that the commander in chief gets to pick the Secretary of Defense he wants. I just doubt he will be the effective Secretary of Defense the president needs.