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Is White House Micromanagement Scaring Off Likely Defense Secretaries?

Michele Flournoy, the front-runner to replace Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. Secretary of Defense, wasted no time in removing herself from the race.

Just one day after Hagel announced his resignation, Flournoy bowed out of contention. As the co-founder and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C., think-tank Center for a New American Security and a former undersecretary of defense for policy, she would have been the first female to take the helm at the Defense Department had she been confirmed.

In a letter this week to President Barack Obama, Flournoy cited "family concerns" as a reason for deciding "that now was not the right time for me to re-enter government." But she was probably influenced by other factors, including his national-security staff’s notorious micromanagement of the Pentagon.

"The White House team is severely micromanaging most departments, not just defense, but defense included," said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who oversaw national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.

"I can assume that Michele knows that animal pretty well because she was undersecretary," he said.

Flournoy served as the third-ranking official at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2012, when the department was headed by Leon Panetta. Both he and his predecessor, Robert Gates, a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration, have since published books that were highly critical of the current administration’s management style.

In 2011, for example, the day the U.S. and coalition allies began airstrikes against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Gates wrote in his memoirs, "Duty," that he was questioned at a principals' meeting by then-National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and then-White House Chief of Staff William Daley over the military's targeting of Libyan ground forces.

"I angrily shot back, 'You are the biggest micromanagers I have ever worked with. You can't use a screwdriver reaching from D.C. to Libya on military operations. The president has given us his strategic direction. For God's sake, now let us run it.' My well of patience had run dry," he wrote.

Adams, who recently wrote a column for Foreign Policy about Hagel's departure, said in addition to White House micromanagement, the next defense secretary will have to grapple with two other big challenges: A relatively short, two-year window in which to accomplish his or her goals; and a budgeting process dominated by increasingly vocal generals pressing for more defense funding despite automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

In the last two years of any administration, officials are tired and don’t necessarily have the political capital to make necessary reforms, Adams said. "The number of things that you can do to change anything is really quite limited," he said.

What's more, neither Hagel nor Panetta were successful in bringing more discipline to the budgeting process, Adams said. Now, both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno are calling for more funding than what was included in the president's request, he said.

"The new secretary is facing the challenge of keeping the service chiefs in the box," Adams said. "That's a horrendous challenge with how far out they've been."

Flournoy isn't the only potential nominee who waved off interest in the position. Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, recently elected to another six-year term, "has made it very clear that he does not wish to be considered for the secretary of defense or any other cabinet position," his spokesman, Chip Unruh, told the Providence Journal newspaper.

Adams can relate. "If I were any candidate, I'd have to think seriously about whether I want to do that job," he said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and his predecessor, Ashton Carter, are rumored to be among the few candidates left with the credentials Obama appears to want.

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