Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s departure is not good news for a military already struggling to absorb ever more budget cuts on top of ever rising demands and a Pentagon bureaucracy unsure about itself while about to have its fourth change in command in six years. While he was not a noisy regular on all the Sunday talk shows, Secretary Hagel was competently managing the largest federal agency’s drawdown at a time of great global unrest.
Hagel inherited the job at arguably the hardest time in President Obama’s tenure, when sequestration was going into full effect. His predecessors warned about the potential for catastrophe of these automatic spending cuts while Secretary Hagel had to make all the tough choices of actually living with them.
While his legacy may be mixed in foreign policy, Secretary Hagel succeeded in defense policy. And he did so at a time when there was absolutely no positive news coming out of the Pentagon. He also had the buy-in of the force, a major accomplishment that should not be easily overlooked when many of those service members are in harm’s way every day in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria.
One of his first acts as secretary was to make public the results of his Strategic Choices and Management Review exercise. As a result, Hagel was more up front in articulating the specific consequences of sequestration than those before him. Through the process, he also forced the Joint Chiefs to finally get serious about the internal defense inflation robbing needed funds for combat power. While the review was not perfect, he was right to make the results public. Further, the analysis helped connect the dots for policy makers in newly clarifying ways between budget choices and tangible national-security consequences.
As a result, Secretary Hagel proposed a series of sensible but controversial Pentagon reforms. While the implementation has been incomplete and unwelcome, they are the kind of overdue trade-offs required after years when all the easy choices had been made and proverbial low-hanging fruit picked.
Secretary Hagel’s defense strategy was also far more honest and realistic in its assessment of how budget cuts are negatively impacting the force than previous iterations. Even the blue-ribbon National Defense Panel established to critique the document said that its lack of long-term focus was not the Pentagon’s fault, but rather that of politicians who cannot provide budget clarity for the Department of Defense.
Hagel tried to continue his quest for honesty with an audience that did not want to hear it with the president’s 2015 budget request. At the last minute, the White House gave guidance for the Pentagon to request more money above legal budget caps. The secretary was then forced to embed multiple budgets in one to further highlight sequestration’s consequences. While the intent was helpful, this unfortunately resulted in the most confusing budget request in recent memory.
Secretary Hagel’s recent initiative of a “third offset” strategy is a smart proposal in light of growing threats to U.S. military technological superiority. Again, due to factors outside of his control, including the need for higher budgets, but politicians who cannot agree on a grand bargain, it is possible this initiative will end up like the administration’s “pivot” to Asia: under-resourced and more about rhetoric than reality. Regardless, the effort is still the right one to pursue.
Even in questions of how to confront a growing set of threats, Secretary Hagel carefully listened to his military commanders and pushed back against the administration significantly in recent weeks. The unfortunate reality is that declining military capacity and capability—based on choices made by people other than Hagel long before he ever took the job—have already begun to limit options for the commander-in-chief. This unfortunate position the United States now finds itself in is what should be worrying the White House as much as half measures and split-the-baby approaches to combat Islamic State and other challenges around the world.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had an incredibly difficult job at a time of great global unrest. Simple politics meant he had virtually no good news to report, and yet he attempted to win over the department while ensuring the position was never about him—the exact trait needed at this point in America’s defense drawdown. Hopefully, his legacy will show that he did a decent job leading one of the world’s largest organizations and separate his competent stewardship from the messy politics outside of his control.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense/CC by-nc-nd 2.0