Alternate headline: Failing executive fires wrong adviser in attempt to recover. It’s not that Chuck Hagel especially deserved to hang onto his job as Secretary of Defense that triggered the consensus in Washington that Barack Obama’s “smart power” foreign policy has become an utter disaster. It’s that no one thinks Hagel had anything to do with policy at all. Politico’s Michael Crowley explains how Obama has become a uniter after all:
It isn’t often that left, right and center agree about the Obama White House. But the firing of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week produced a near-unanimous reaction: President Obama’s foreign policy team is dysfunctional and in need of a stronger tonic than the exit of a low-profile cabinet member with a light policy footprint.
Both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and The New York Times editorial page agreed that, in the words of the Times, Hagel “was not the core of the Obama administration’s military problem. That lies with the president and a national security policy that has too often been incoherent and shifting at a time of mounting international challenges” and “tightly controlled… by a small group of aides.”
In fact, the decision to dump Hagel has backfired by highlighting the failure and dysfunction:
As Obama’s foreign policy continues to grasp for clear wins abroad — with ISIL still fighting, Iran still stubborn and Vladimir Putin still defiant — the critique of a tight-knit and micromanaging White House national security team is quickly gaining currency in Washington.
And while some say that dumping Hagel was intended, in part, to cool the criticism of Obama’s foreign policy machinations, the immediate effect has been to draw more attention to the way life-and-death decisions are made in the White House Situation Room — and why they’re not working out better in trouble spots like from Syria to Ukraine.
McCain made this point in a radio interview, saying that the real problem is that the White House “has no strategy to deal with” any of the hot-spot foreign policy areas. McCain said Hagel had been “very, very frustrated” with a lack of access to the policymaking process,” and even though McCain had been one of the fiercest critics of Hagel’s appointment, argued that the real problem is with the people still left in place:
The New York Times editorial board agreed, as Crowley noted. They titled their piece “A Problem Beyond Mr. Hagel,” and concluded that Obama’s incoherence on foreign policy was the root cause of the failure:
[Hagel] was not the core of the Obama administration’s military problem. That lies with the president and a national security policy that has too often been incoherent and shifting at a time of mounting international challenges, especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. …
Apart from these differences, Mr. Hagel was not well served by the fact that national security policy is tightly controlled by the White House, with Mr. Obama relying on a small group of aides, including Susan Rice, the national security adviser, for counsel. That process has often resulted in delayed and contradictory signals about Mr. Obama’s foreign policy agenda and the military strategies needed to carry it out. And, of course, all of this has come in for withering criticism from Republicans and many Democrats as well. …
A more aggressive defense secretary who has Mr. Obama’s full confidence and ear may be able to better deal with chaos and war on these fronts. But, ultimately, it is Mr. Obama who will have to set the course with a more coherent strategy.
In order to get a more coherent strategy, Obama would need to move outside the insularity of his own inner circle, select a SecDef candidate with a solid constituency among foreign- and national-security policy stalwarts, while bringing Republicans in on the move to ensure a smooth transition. In other words, Obama needs an appointee with the stature of a Robert Gates, or even a post-CIA Leon Panetta, to reset policy and restore some bipartisan support while moving to competency. Either that, or a technocrat with lengthy experience who nonetheless can provide a dissenting voice on policy matters and make it stick.
With that in mind, meet the man who has the newest trial balloon as a short-list candidate to replace Hagel:
Other candidates being considered include Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who previously served as the Pentagon’s general counsel, according to several people close to the process. Johnson is highly regarded by the West Wing, particularly after he oversaw the months-long process to identify the immigration executive actions Obama announced last week.
But given Republicans’ staunch opposition to those actions, tapping Johnson for the Pentagon post risks turning his confirmation hearing into a fierce debate on immigration. The president would also need to fill the top job at Homeland Security again just as that department is implementing the immigration actions.
Seriously? Not only does this double down on insularity within the White House inner circle, it practically alleviates any charges of obstructionism from Republicans if they block him. He’s got no particular foreign policy or national-security policy portfolio (other than tenures as the top lawyer for the Air Force and Pentagon), and his biggest accomplishment in the Obama administration is constructing a bypass of Congress. Why would the Senate endorse that?
Even more to the point, why would anyone else support it? When only 19% of the public believes that Obama’s ISIS strategy is working, with 61% see it as failing, doubling down on the status quo is unbelievably tone deaf. The point of making a change is to actually make a change. A Jeh Johnson nomination will do nothing but strengthen the conviction that Obama is not only adrift, but unmoored from reality.