Now that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation is final, all eyes are on a handful of candidates capable of leading the Pentagon through a minefield of fiscal challenges and unpredictable threats to national security.
A new defense secretary could give the Obama administration new strategies for dealing with determined enemies such as extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Hagel’s successor will also need the experience to ensure the defense-spending cuts under sequestration don’t damage readiness in a shrinking U.S. military.
Much of the discussion about potential successors has centered on former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. Current Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Sen. Jack Reed, D.-Rhode Island, are also favored for the post.
Flournoy, who is now the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, has the political skill that could help end the defense portion of sequestration, according to Loren Thompson, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Va.-based think tank.
“If Hagel is replaced by somebody who is more focused and more politically adept, like Michele Flournoy, there’s a reasonable chance that the Pentagon can get relief from sequestration,” Thompson said.
On the other hand, it may be unwise for Flournoy to accept the job, given that Obama's term is up at the end of 2016, said Bryan McGrath, managing director of the Ferrybridge Group, a Maryland-based defense consultancy.
“If I were somebody like Michele Flournoy, who has the chops to be the secretary of defense, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, there is no way I would take the job,” McGrath said. “It is tough to get A-level people to come in during the last two years of an administration.”
Flournoy would also be the first female defense secretary, a milestone that Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, acknowledged.
“I think it would be good to get a woman in there just like it would be good to have a woman to be president – to break that barrier,” Korb said. However, Flournoy would not be Korb’s pick for the next Pentagon chief.
“Jack Reed is an Army Ranger and has political experience; I think he brings more to the table than Michele Flournoy,” he said.
Senator Reed’s office released a statement indicating that the Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee wants to remain a senator and does not want to be considered.
If it were up to Korb, former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, would be the next defense secretary.
In his 35 years as a lawmaker, Levin served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I would pick Levin,” Korb said, pointing out that Levin has decided not to run again.
“You are asking someone to take a job that will last a year and a half. He is well liked on both sides of the aisle and he gets along with” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the key roadblocks in the confirmation hearing process, Korb said.
A senior Pentagon official familiar with the situation said Hagel’s departure could afford the Obama administration a face-saving opportunity to shift strategy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
A new secretary of defense could give the Obama administration the opportunity to prolong and strengthen the U.S. ground-role in Afghanistan and potentially add more troops to the fight against ISIS, the official explained.
“This provides the administration the opportunity to give itself a hard re-examination and implement a shift if that is what is decided,” a senior Pentagon official said. “This provides an opportunity to shift focus on how we are dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan while saving face. This could be a way to get himself out of the conundrum of ‘no boots on the ground’ in Iraq.”