Mark Shields: The White House staff vs. defense secretaries

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Last year, President Barack Obama made his position perfectly clear: Chuck Hagel “is an American patriot. … To this day, Chuck bears the scars — and the shrapnel — from battles he fought in our name. … As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, in Chuck Hagel, our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength. They see one of their own.” The president said of the man he nominated to become the nation’s first secretary of defense who, as an enlisted man, fought and was seriously wounded in combat: “Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”

This year, after Hagel’s less-than-voluntary resignation was announced in a joyless, awkward, hastily scheduled White House event, Obama called his “great friend” an “exemplary defense secretary” who, when it “mattered most — behind closed doors in the Oval Office” — always gave it to him straight. “And for that, I will always be grateful,” Obama said.

What immediately followed, even before the administration went looking for its fourth defense secretary in six years, was the flood of leaks from White House and administration sources correcting the president, their boss. Hagel, these anonymous snipers testified, was “not up to the job,” or he “just wasn’t the man for the job,” or he just “wasn’t proactive (whatever that means) enough.” That these leakers, self-styled Obama loyalists, make the president look disingenuous, even dissembling, by their contradicting what he said does not seem to bother them in the least.

What seems to be true is that, like his Pentagon predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Hagel clashed with the power-clutching Obama White House staff, which, even the president’s admirers concede, is a tight, insular team of essentially uncritical loyalists. Gates has gone public on the matter, saying the micromanagement drove him crazy. And Panetta adds that “because of that centralization of authority at the White House, there are too few voices that are being heard.”

Beyond the shabby treatment of Hagel, why anyone who does not already have a close, personal friendship with the president would want to be a Cabinet officer is almost beyond my understanding. One Obama Cabinet officer, who knows the president well, laughed as he complained privately to me about how a minor non-policy announcement from his office was “corrected” three times by some power-mad 24-year-old at the White House.

At some point, if you are commander in chief and you find yourself seeking a fourth defense secretary in six years, you ought to ask why the three previous exceptional individuals have had identical problems in dealing with your White House staff.

Just one anecdote. Facing the draft in 1967, Hagel joined the Army and got orders for Germany. He asked instead to be sent to Vietnam. The Army, suspicious of the young soldier’s mental health, reacted by having Hagel examined over two days by psychiatrists, counselors and chaplains. Hagel passed and got new orders that took him to the Mekong Delta, where he earned two Purple Hearts.

Chuck Hagel is a public servant. He was, I’m sure, an imperfect Cabinet secretary. But ambition-driven critics, whose most serious wound probably was a painful paper cut sustained in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and who hide behind anonymous leaks, don’t deserve to polish his combat boots.


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