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 Panetta’s intellectual cravings, were replaced by Hagel’s preferred briefing material: an index card with 25 words on it. Policy papers were still drafted, but Hagel’s 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?” Hagel’s 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 — or even worse — had offended their president or minister by wasting their time. The standard response, “The secretary is not feeling well,” seldom proved adequate. Hagel didn’t just waste everyone’s 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 Hagel’s 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 — the Pentagon’s true regional and functional experts — often became meeting note-takers while a small army of “assistants to the secretary” took their seats at the table. Hagel’s former and current chiefs of staff (Mark Lippert and Rexon Ryu, respectively) were unable to supervise basic office functions such as managing Hagel’s official correspondence, calendar, or travel schedule. For example, a diplomatic incident occurred when Hagel’s office took four months to respond to a European defense minister’s invitation for Hagel to visit. Incidents like this were common during Hagel’s 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 Pentagon’s climate policy with the White House, while other issues — Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine — 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 Dempsey’s outspoken nature during White House meetings. It was created by senior civilian officials — starting with Hagel — who steadfastly refused to provide clear guidance to the military services and combatant commands. When the generals went outside their lane — and they often did — no one was willing to call them on it.