The Still Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense

November 25, 2014

Since the job was created in 1947, there have been 24 secretaries of defense, counting Donald Rumsfeld twice. With Chuck Hagel’s departure, nine of them have been fired or forced to resign.

This troubling record contrasts with that of secretaries of state, only two of whom have been fired since the post was created in 1789 – Timothy Pickering in 1800 and Alexander Haig in 1982.

What is it about running the Pentagon that leads to so much turbulence and job insecurity?

The job requires managing about two million people and a budget larger than most nations’ gross domestic product. The secretary has to decide how to recruit, retain, train, and equip the armed forces; advise and decide if, how, and when to fight wars; and prepare for the full spectrum of future possible conflicts, whether against masked terrorists, anti-access missile salvos, or geeky cyberwarriors.

But much of the secretary’s job is outside the Pentagon – testifying before Congress, visiting the troops, and attending frequent meetings with the president and other members of the national security team.

A secretary of defense has to maintain the confidence of and good relations with four key constituencies: the president, Congress, senior military officers, and his colleagues on the national security team, such as the national security adviser and the secretary of state. Whenever any one of those relationships sours, his (and they have all been men so far) effectiveness gets called into question.

Ultimately, the relationship with the president matters most. Several long-serving SecDefs were kept in office despite major frictions with Congress or the senior echelons of the military. But eventually Robert McNamara, Caspar Weinberger, and Donald Rumsfeld were forced out. Others lost their posts when they became a major political problem and the White House and the president lost confidence in them. That was the case with the first two secretaries, James Forrestal and Louis Johnson, two under President Eisenhower [Charles Wilson and Neil McElroy], and then James Schlesinger [1974] and Les Aspin [1994].

It’s notable that few lost their jobs because they failed to manage the Pentagon efficiently or effectively. Instead, they were ousted primarily because of personal or political problems with the president.

Forrestal refused to accept Harry Truman’s budget caps and began scheming with Republicans. He also displayed paranoia and erratic behavior that eventually drove him to suicide. Johnson became a liability when his budget cuts led to major problems at the start of the Korean War. Schlesinger treated Gerald Ford with what the president thought was disrespect. And Aspin was blamed for U.S. military setbacks in Somalia and Haiti.

McNamara lost confidence in the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson lost confidence in him. Congress also criticized McNamara for rejecting military advice on how to fight that war. Weinberger lost the confidence of Congress as Pentagon spending on wasteful programs soared. He was also in a running feud with Secretary of State George Shultz. Ultimately, President Reagan rejected Weinberger’s foreign policy advice and chose to seek arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld was sacrificed just after the 2006 elections and just as President George W. Bush was deciding to rescue his failing Iraq war strategy with a surge of U.S. troops.

It’s too early to tell precisely why Secretary Chuck Hagel is departing. Washington convention requires public words of praise on both sides even as anonymous sources start dishing dirt to receptive journalists. As expected, the president and vice president praised Hagel’s service, and the outgoing secretary gave words of thanks rather than an explanation. We may never know the full reasons for the change.

Hagel was chosen for many symbolic reasons. He had developed good personal relations with President Barack Obama when he was still in the Senate. As a fellow former senator and a Republican, it was thought that Hagel would win an easy confirmation. Moreover, Hagel is a former enlisted man who had served in Vietnam. As things turned out, his confirmation was rockier than expected. Republican Senators filibustered the nomination for twelve days, raising questions about Hagel’s views on Israel and other issues, and he was ultimately confirmed by a 58-41 vote, far short of an overwhelming endorsement.

Hagel’s Republican credentials did not give the Obama administration much leverage in several tense partisan conflicts. His prior military service made him sympathetic to the needs of those in uniform, but no more far-sighted than others in anticipating the challenges of Libya, Ukraine, or the so-called Islamic State. To this outsider’s perspective, he presided over the Pentagon in a low-key, workmanlike way, with neither dramatic successes nor dramatic failures.

But obviously something was wrong. In late October, somebody leaked word that Hagel had written a memo to national security adviser Susan Rice criticizing policy toward Iraq and Syria. That surprising tidbit was included in the first of many stories suggesting personnel changes, or a “shake up,” following the midterm elections. It was the sort of item that exposed high level disagreements, not merely jockeying for support in the interagency debates. Other reports spoke of “rivalries and unclear leadership” in the national security team.

There may be more personnel changes to come, each of which will involve the frictions and uncertainties of new people and new working relationships.

Now is a particularly difficult time to change leadership at the Pentagon. There is still no budget approved by Congress for the current year. The Hagel team is preparing a budget for 2016 that assumes a bipartisan deal to remove the existing budget caps and allow significant increases. The new secretary will have to explain and defend a still unresolved strategy for Iraq and Syria, an apparently changed military mission in Afghanistan, and how these conflicts and resource decisions relate to U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine and the pivot to Asia.

Whoever is nominated will first have to negotiate the rough waters of an angry, Republican-controlled Senate, filled with defense policy critics eager to pressure for commitments that no official can give. If and when successful, the 25th secretary of defense can look forward to at most two years of service in what once again appears to be a nearly impossible job.


Charles A. Stevenson teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and is the author of SecDef: the nearly impossible job of Secretary of Defense (Potomac Books, 2006).


Photo credit: Chuck Hagel