The harder puzzle for the White House is whether Hagel would be the best manager during an important inflection point in Pentagon history. The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will be ending, and the services will be fighting over how to divide a shrinking budget.
Hagel brings some obvious pluses on both counts: As a Republican and a genuine military hero when he served as an enlisted man in Vietnam, he can give President Obama cover as he executes the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hagel is angry about what he sees as the misconceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as perhaps only a combat veteran can be. If he had his way, the troops probably would have come home yesterday. But this impatience is also slightly worrying. The withdrawal will succeed only if our military leaves an Afghanistan that can hold together.
Hagel’s military record is surely one big reason why the president wants him. He’s a guy who, as Reed says, knows how to talk to the troops and has walked in their boots. He’s blunt, direct and impatient with pettifogging. In these traits, he’s similar to the current secretary, Leon Panetta, and his predecessor, Bob Gates. And like both of them, Hagel has a temper.
Gates was the most successful defense secretary in modern times, for reasons worth considering now. He understood how to manage the Pentagon and did it not by getting down in the weeds but by staying above them. He delegated the busywork to Pentagon bureaucrats and made the big decisions himself. He was effective partly because people were scared of him. They knew that if they crossed the secretary, they would get fired. This brought a rare accountability.
Hagel could do the tough, no-nonsense-boss part of the job. But Gates had another essential talent that will be harder to match. He was a genuine national-security intellectual, who had studied how to manage and motivate huge institutions when he was director of the CIA and at the National Security Council. He knew the big strategic things about defense policy, but he also knew the little technical things. Gates was such a sawed-off shotgun of a guy that it was easy to miss that he was also a subtle thinker.