In some ways, the Obama administration’s current predicament is not unique.
Cabinet officials come and go, and replacing them late into a second term can be difficult. Major substitutions in highly visible roles often emerge internally from the agencies in need of new leadership. Few want to jump on to what is, if not a sinking ship, certainly and enterprise that is taking on water.
This familiar dynamic is, in part, why the administration seems to be having a hard time finding a replacement for outgoing Sec. Chuck Hagel. But a quote provided to Politico by a source within the Defense Department recently sheds some light on why the Obama White House seems to be in a predicament without many precedents.
This week, Michèle Flournoy opted to take herself out of the running to replace Hagel in the Pentagon. This must have been a significant let down for the White House. As a former undersecretary of defense, she has experience, and she proved herself to be devoted to this administration’s policy goals when she co-led Obama’s 2009 transition team at the DoD. In addition, Flournoy is a woman, and she would have been the first of her gender to ascend to the position of DefSec.
“I do not think they’re looking for someone more aggressive and independent,” a source within the Pentagon who spoke to Politico revealed. That Defense Department official added that Flournoy “doesn’t want to be a doormat, and I think they want a doormat.”
Another source told Politico, “It sounds like the White House just wants a cheerleader for what’s going on.”
The report that accompanies these quotes is worth a full read. It observed that whoever is tapped for that position is going to face a bruising confirmation process and will confront the reality that none of Obama’s last three Defense Secretaries has had an especially warm relationship with the president. But the next Defense Secretary will also inherit Obama’s chaotic defense and foreign policy.
In Iraq, the United States is committing more soldiers and resources to repelling the ISIS insurgency — a mission that will almost certainly outlast the Obama presidency. In Syria, American and Syrian jets share the skies where both attack Islamic State positions, providing Bashar al-Assad with a level of legitimacy that contradicts the president’s past statements and is alienating the broader Arab world.
“[T]he longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved,” The New York Times reported of Obama’s contradictory approach to ISIS and Assad in Syria, “the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region.”
The West has all but confirmed that the new status quo in Ukraine is one of semi-frozen conflict that will periodically escalate into pitched battles in which more territory is lost to pro-Moscow forces. In Eastern Europe, America’s permanent commitment to the continent’s security has only been perfunctorily observed. The United States has provided Kiev with millions of dollars in non-lethal military aid, but all the night vision goggles and MREs in the world will not, and have not, halted the Russian Army’s advance into a sovereign European state. Not content with essentially carving off portions of Ukraine, Moscow is already eagerly destabilizing another European former Soviet Republic: Moldova.
In the Pacific, a rising China is escalating its low-intensity naval war with neighboring Asia-Pacific powers as rapacious eyes in Beijing settle on prosecuting their own territorial ambitions. Near the Spratly Island chain, an archipelago over which China claims full political authority not recognized by the majority of the international community, the People’s Republic has taken to building a new island that will serve as a military and airbase.
This development is almost certainly to lead to conflict with those nations who also claim the Spratleys; the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even Taiwan, another nation that America is obligated to defend. China seeks to test that commitment, and it is going about laying the groundwork to do just that. In response to this provocation, the Obama administration crafted a bilateral security agreement with Beijing this month with the design of de-escalating tensions and preventing conflict between the two countries. This response to Chinese aggression is prompting U.S. allies in the region, like Japan, to invest in some insurance should America’s supposed commitment to their defense fail to materialize when it is needed most.
The world has grown more dangerous over the course of the Obama presidency, and it is largely due to the actions – or inactions – of this president. Who would want to endorse that? The Pentagon will not remain leaderless for long, but the next Defense Secretary is likely to depart from that office with a dubious record if only because of the suboptimal conditions he or she will inherit. That’s not a particularly enticing job opportunity.
Well, at least there is dedicated parking.