As the news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had resigned “under pressure” spread, media sources immediately characterized his departure in terms of a combination of personality clashes and policy disputes. Thus, the New York Times, citing White House sources, reported the story this way: “The officials characterized the decision as recognition that the threat from the Islamic State will require different skills from those that Mr. Hagel, who often struggled to articulate a clear viewpoint and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary, was brought in to employ.” The Times’ reporter went on to note that “Mr. Hagel struggled to fit in with Mr. Obama’s close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration.”
The problem with this explanation is that it was Hagel’s low-key demeanor that made him particularly appealing to Obama, who had clashed with Hagel’s two predecessors at Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both of whom were more vocal defenders of their policy views and institutional interests. Now we are led to believe that it was precisely this close-to-the-vest approach that cost Hagel his job.
So, why was Hagel jettisoned, if not because of his “passive” administrative style? The more likely reason is that Hagel fell victim to a more fundamental tension affecting relations between many modern presidents and their cabinet members, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. As evidence, consider that Obama’s two previous defense secretaries, Gates and Panetta, had job tenures not much different in length than Hagel’s despite their different demeanors; Gates tenure under Obama lasted a bit more than two years (he served previously under Bush), while Panetta left before the two-year mark. Hagel’s tenure will fall between these two. In the modern era, defense secretaries serve, on average, about 2 ½ years, so Hagel’s tenure was shorter than usual, but not by much.
Nonetheless, Obama will have gone through at least four defense secretaries, tied with Nixon and Truman for the most for any modern president dating back to the creation of this position during Truman’s administration. The high turnover reflects the difficulty presidents have in balancing two competing needs from their advisers. On the one hand, they need information and expertise from their foreign policy agencies that is untainted by partisan or institutional slant. On the other, they want to be sure their advisers are loyal to the president’s policy and political objectives. In practice, it is difficult to calibrate an advisory system so that both needs are fulfilled. The reality is that over the course of their presidency, presidents increasingly rely on their core political supporters located in the White House office over the input from their cabinet secretaries in charge of the major departments. This is particularly true in foreign policy, where the weight of responsibility falls most heavily on the President. The most visible manifestation is a tendency for the national security adviser and his or her staff to take on a greater foreign policy advising role, usually at the expense of the secretaries of State and Defense. This tension has been on display from the moment Obama took office and was confronted with the Pentagon request for a troop increase in Afghanistan. Obama eventually signed on to the request, but only reluctantly and after an internal debate that, as recounted by Bob Woodward, laid bare these tensions for all to see. Woodard’s account was largely confirmed by Gates in his memoirs, in which he describes a President who never really believed in his own Afghan war strategy.
From the perspective of defense secretaries, the White House-centered national security staff is viewed as composed of partisan loyalists lacking in foreign policy expertise and who are too willing to micromanage the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders. White House loyalists, in contrast, believe that the cabinet secretaries are insufficiently concerned with the political impact of their policy choices, and are too beholden to institutional interests at the president’s expense. By virtue of geographic and administrative proximity, it is the White House national security staff that usually wins this conflict. Cabinet members, in contrast, are typically forced out or resign amidst rumors of personality clashes with the President and/or members of his White House team.
In their memoirs, both Gates and Panetta paint a similar picture of an adversarial relationship with Obama’s national security team. Gates describes Thomas Donilon, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House coordinator for the wars, as engaging in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Similarly, in his memoirs Worthy Fights Panetta describes an insular White House staff that seemed to ignore cabinet members’ advice on issues ranging from intervention in Syria to troop levels in Afghanistan. In acknowledging that White House staffers Donilon, then-Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough wielded disproportionate influence over nation security policy, Panetta notes “There was nothing wrong with that, but that did have the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies…Those agency heads were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities.”
It may be that this dynamic is more pronounced in the Obama administration because Obama entered office with less experience, and perhaps less confidence, in the foreign policy realm than some previous presidents, such as George H. W. Bush, as well as little executive experience. But the reality is that most recent presidents enter office lacking extensive foreign policy backgrounds and while they initially may be willing to defer to those advisers, like Gates and Panetta, who have expertise and experience in these areas, over time presidents are more likely to seek to broaden their reach, through their hand-picked White House-centered staff, on major foreign policy processes. This is particularly true as their term in office winds down, and they become increasingly concerned about their policy legacy. Inevitably, cabinet advisers are going to bristle under what they see as declining influence and increased White House meddling in their institutional bailiwick. In this regard, Hagel’s departure seems to fit the prevailing pattern.
I have no doubt that Hagel clashed with the President, and his immediate White House staff, on a number of foreign policy issues. But those clashes, rather than reflecting personality dynamics, or differences on the issues, are more likely the result of diverging institutional perspectives that have colored the relationships between presidents and their defense secretaries long before Obama and Hagel took office, and which will govern future presidential-advisors relationships as well. The key for any president is to recognize the source of these disagreements, and to understand that despite – because of – their different perspectives, they must make an active effort to include defense secretaries’ perspectives in their advising process. This may require institutionalizing that input through a formal mechanism, such as a weekly meeting unfiltered by the immediate White House staff. And it means acting to be sure that, when it comes to managing the foreign policy advising process, the White House loyalists don’t operate as both judge and jury. This is particularly the case now, as the Obama administration faces numerous foreign policy crises that threaten not just his political standing, but the nation’s security as well.