Why Chuck Hagel failed as SecDef: A view from the Pentagonís trenches

  • BY THOMAS E. RICKSThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.

  • DECEMBER 1, 2014

By "An E-Ring Veteran"

Best Defense guest columnist

Spontaneous cheers could be heard in many Pentagon offices as the surprise news of Hagelís resignation spread. Although Hagelís predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, were hugely popular, few Pentagon wonks developed warm feelings for Hagel. Drawing on conversations from a mix of senior executives and mid-level officials, political appointees and career government servants, hawks and doves, and Republicans and Democrats, this post presents an insider view on why Hagel failed during his brief tenure as Pentagon chief.

First, Hagel was lazy. This may seem harsh, but the Secretary did not adequately prepare for meetings. Not even close. The 4-5 page briefing papers that Gates devoured, or the two-page memos that satisfied Panettaís intellectual cravings, were replaced by Hagelís preferred briefing material: an index card with 25 words on it. Policy papers were still drafted, but Hagelís inner circle repeatedly made it clear they would never be read. As one official said during a moment of frustration, "How can we prepare the secretary to speak on this complex issue with only a sentence fragment?" Hagelís aversion to words was most noticeable during meetings with foreign counterparts and heads of state where his lack of preparation all but guaranteed that he would have little to contribute aside from pleasantries and small talk. After such engagements, foreign staffers often inquired why Hagel was angry or aloof ó or even worse ó had offended their president or minister by wasting their time. The standard response, "The secretary is not feeling well," seldom proved adequate. Hagel didnít just waste everyoneís time, he routinely missed opportunities to advance U.S. policy by learning how our partners viewed complex issues. He also failed to develop important personal relationships that might prove critical when serious problems emerged.

Second, Hagel filled his inner staff with real-life bobbleheads and poor managers. Loyalty is a cherished commodity in Washington, but Hagelís E-Ring office suffered the same groupthink that reportedly occurs in the Oval Office. Subject-matter experts were routinely denied entry into briefings. Deputy assistant secretaries ó the Pentagonís true regional and functional experts ó often became meeting note-takers while a small army of "assistants to the secretary" took their seats at the table. Hagelís former and current chiefs of staff (Mark Lippert and Rexon Ryu, respectively) were unable to supervise basic office functions such as managing Hagelís official correspondence, calendar, or travel schedule. For example, a diplomatic incident occurred when Hagelís office took four months to respond to a European defense ministerís invitation for Hagel to visit. Incidents like this were common during Hagelís tenure. Such dysfunction hurt international defense relationships and enabled close advisors such as Elissa Slotkin to promote their own agendas on the sidelines. Slotkin convinced Hagel to quietly launch his climate change initiative in October to better align the Pentagonís climate policy with the White House, while other issues ó Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine ó simmered in the background.

Third, Hagel never met a 4-star general whom he could refuse. As one military officer said, "The United States cannot have civilian control of the military if civilians are not willing to take control." The current crisis in civilian-military relations was not caused by General Dempseyís outspoken nature during White House meetings. It was created by senior civilian officials ó starting with Hagel ó who steadfastly refused to provide clear guidance to the military services and combatant commands. When the generals went outside their lane ó and they often did ó no one was willing to call them on it.

So will President Obama find an effective replacement? Of course! Itís a challenging job, but the rewards are immense. Sure, the new secretary will have to deal with a few micromanaging bosses from across the Potomac, but she will have the opportunity to shape policy in ways Secretary of State Kerry could only dream of. If she is willing to spend the time and effort necessary to do the job well, considers dissenting views, and has the guts to stand up to a bunch of old white guys with colorful ribbons on their chests, we in the Pentagon trenches look forward to her arrival.