February 27th is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s first anniversary as President Obama’s defense chief, and a good time to review his record. Hagel came to the office at a tough time, just as the federal budget was going off the sequestration cliff, and following Obama’s first two defense secretaries — who were viewed as quite successful. He also joined the administration as President Obama’s post re-election job approval was falling below 50%, a dive that persisted through the end of 2013.
But Hagel inherited a good team at DoD, and has used it well. His only big personnel mis-step was allowing relations to deteriorate with deputy secretary Ash Carter — but Carter coveted Hagel’s job, so that may have been unavoidable. Both the interim and newly-nominated deputies are solid choices to run the management side of that sprawling department.
Secretary Hagel has given his Comptroller, Robert Hale, and top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, good running room. They have maneuvered the department successfully through the post-Iraq downturn, and predictable budget cuts. Both Hale and Kendall have outstanding deputies — Mike McCord and Alan Estevez — and a “minimize the harm” strategy is being implemented that just might work. McCord looks to be Secretary Hale’s replacement as Comptroller.
But perhaps most importantly, Secretary Hagel “is not trying to act like he knows it all,” as a senior civilian on the Joint Staff told me. Most incoming secretaries, indeed most political appointees, act that way, and then flounder at the top of their sprawling bureaucracies. Hagel is watching and learning, quietly using his power to keep relations with allies on an even keel while resisting efforts to further reduce military outlays.
Mr. Hagel should take a leaf out of Secretary Robert Gate’s playbook and find one or two key weapons programs to make his own, using the power of his office to drive them into the end zone. You don’t want to have a tough job like defense secretary and not leave behind an enduring legacy of military might. He might also borrow from Secretary Panetta’s model and lock in regular meetings with his assistant secretaries, and use those meetings to better get his arms around his unruly department. He may now be relying too much on his immediate staff. Old habits from being an entrepreneur, and U.S. Senator, die hard.
Hagel early-on embraced some good cost-cutting and bureaucracy-shrinking initiatives, and there are ample opportunities for him to expand those efforts. Force structure is coming down as we pull back from Southwest Asia, and that will greatly reduce defense costs over time. The Defense Business Board, the Armed Services Committees, and Frank Kendall’s shop all have new streamlining initiatives that have the potential to come together in great savings for the taxpayer, and regulatory relief for companies doing business with the Pentagon. Hagel again has an excellent opportunity to use the power of his office to expand these reforms and give them teeth.
So one year in and after a tough confirmation, it is hard to criticize Secretary Hagel’s management of the largest federal agency. Year two might be the time for him to escalate his efforts as he has learned his way around the building, and gotten some budgetary relief from Capitol Hill.
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