The Pentagon sent what could be seen as a strong message on who is favored inside the building to succeed Chuck Hagel as defense secretary by having Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work show up in Afghanistan for Thanksgiving with the troops.
Work served chow to troops at Forward Operating Base Fenty and also conferred with Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, on the troop drawdown and start next year of the Operation Resolute Support training and advisory mission.
Work’s profile has gained prominence as a possible successor to Hagel as other potential candidates thought to be on the White House short list have dropped out.
Earlier this week, Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of Defense for policy, took her name out of the running as did Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, who is slated to become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The simplest solution would be to just promote Bob Work,” said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank. Another possible nominee was former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Goure said. The names of Air Force Secretary Deborah James and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have also been floated in recent days.
“Ash would have the necessary gravitas” to face what was certain to be a contentious nomination hearing before a Senate Armed Services Committee likely to be chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a harsh critic of the Obama administration’s conduct of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Goure said.
Work, a retired Marine colonel and former undersecretary of the Navy, was slammed by McCain in his nomination hearing for the deputy secretary’s post for defending the Littoral Combat Ship and being unfamiliar with a report on cost overruns for the program. McCain briefly put a hold on the nomination.
Both Work and Carter would carry the baggage of backing reforms on pay, allowances and Tricare that Congress has already opposed and are deeply resented within the ranks and by veterans’ groups, said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Trying to make cuts on the backs of the uniforms and the veterans doesn’t seem like a winning formula to me,” Donnelly said. Hagel’s surprise resignation last Monday was followed quickly by a fact sheet on his accomplishments put out by the Pentagon that only pointed to the tough road ahead for any Defense Secretary nominee.
Hagel was the first Defense Secretary “in nearly two decades to be confronted with the reality of shrinking budgets and a growing demand for U.S. military support around the world,” the fact sheet said. The next Secretary will face the same problems.