WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is reaping what it sowed. Toss out someone without good cause and few people will want to work for you once word gets around.
Former defense policy undersecretary Michele Flournoy ducked out last week. Now Jeh Johnson, head of the Department of Homeland Security and former top lawyer at the Pentagon, has told the White House he isn’t interested in the Defense Secretary job, according to the Associated Press. Johnson is a very smart cookie. He can claim loyalty to the administration. After all, they will need lots of defending after President Obama’s recent immigration actions. At the same time, Johnson avoids what is rapidly beginning to look like the rottenest job in town — leading the world’s greatest military.
Now the administration may believe outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel needed to be reined in because he had become a captive of the Joint Chiefs or because he disagreed with the White House about Syria strategy. But who fires someone publicly, lets them stay on in the job until a replacement is found and still expects their replacement to be of good quality, especially this late in an administration?
The idea that Hagel needed replacing — and not the White House aides who have made such a hash of military and national security policy over the last 18 months — is one that seems hard to grasp. Bomb Syria and work with the French to destroy the Assad regime? Check. After a walk between White House chief of staff and President Obama, uncheck! I remember speaking with a senior French official soon after that decision. Details on how the public announcement about air strikes etc and had all been worked out between the two countries and then, poof! Policy changed. The French, to put it gently, were bemused.
True, Hagel does not inspire when appears in public. His nomination hearing was an unmitigated disaster. But the current situation is, as we predicted when the former GOP senator was nominated by Obama, simply proof that the White House runs defense policy with little time or inclination to listen to anyone in the Pentagon who might offer a viewpoint that differs from theirs.
The only good news I can see in all this for the Obama administration is that they don’t need to worry about replacing a second senior Cabinet position now that Johnson’s pulled out.
We appear left with Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, former deputy secretary Ash Carter and, perhaps, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James as the only people who haven’t yet turned the administration down as it hunts for a new Cabinet-level appointee to lead the U.S. military. Or are White House officials already effectively doing that job?
Perhaps Hagel and Obama will discuss this when they meet tomorrow morning at the White House.