What Hagel Could Give Obama

With the “fiscal cliff” partly solved and partly delayed, President Obama may now turn his attention to filling his national security team for the second term, including whether to face down neocon opposition to Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern notes.

By Ray McGovern

Absent from the discussion about whether former Sen. Chuck Hagel would make a good Secretary of Defense is any focus on lessons learned from personal factors like combat in war, as well as loyalty to the President.

As I was grousing about this, my eye caught a name on a rubbing I made from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall: “Edward S. Krukowski.” Many years ago, Ed and I studied Russian and were in the ROTC together.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden talk in a West Wing hallway of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Capt. Edward Krukowski, USAF, was flying a C-123 on a resupply mission in Vietnam when shot down on Oct. 24, 1964, six days short of his 26th birthday, leaving a wife and three small children. Ed had planned for the worst, leaving a request to be buried at Arlington Cemetery within view of the grave of President John Kennedy.

What Ed probably did not know is that Kennedy had ordered a phased withdrawal of virtually all U.S. troops from Vietnam a year before Ed and his entire crew went down.

Six weeks before Kennedy himself was killed, he defied his chief military and civilian advisers and issued National Security Action Memorandum Number 263 (Oct. 11, 1963), ordering the Pentagon to prepare to withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of 1963, and the bulk of the rest by the end of 1965. It was a dicey thing for a president to defy his top military advisers on war. Yet he got away with it – for six weeks, anyway.

Kennedy had the strong personal loyalty of his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who had learned not to be intimidated by the hawkish generals Kennedy inherited. These generals had already discredited themselves by their blasé attitude toward nuclear war during the missile crisis in Cuba in October 1962. They were the same Joint Chiefs whom then-Under Secretary of State George Ball called “a sewer of deceit.”

Their hyperbolic warnings that the fall of Vietnam would mean Communist control of Southeast Asia fell on appropriately skeptical ears. In May 1962, Kennedy ordered them to develop a contingency troop-withdrawal plan; they “slow-rolled” the project for more than a year.

During his first year in office, President Barack Obama encountered similar insubordination when the Pentagon pigeonholed his order to serve up options (plural) on Afghanistan. In the end, they came up with one singularly ineffective and costly option, namely, the “surge” of 40,000 (or “only” 30,000, if that’s all they could get) additional troops – that was the brainchild of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Mr. Obama had tasked then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to give him options (plural). But Gates’s assessment of the relative power of the generals vis-à-vis the President persuaded him that Mr. Obama didn’t even have to be “slow rolled.” He could be simply ignored.

The contrast between Robert McNamara and Robert Gates raises a key question with respect to what role Mr. Hagel would play, if our trial-balloon-fan President were to summon the courage to actually nominate him to head the Pentagon.

Chuck Hagel is his own man. There is even some chance his example might prompt Mr. Obama to be more his own man. Clearly,  the President needs all the backbone strengthening he can get, if he is to stick to his plan to exit Afghanistan and face down supporters of hard-right Israelis itching for war on Iran.

Mr. Obama’s better-late-than-never, Kennedy-like decision to pull almost all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014 has already drawn fire from neocon pundits like Max Boot, who argue for keeping major U.S. bases near key cities like Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and the most populous Afghan city after Kabul.

Who remembers Gen. McChrystal’s cringe-worthy promise to pacify Marja, some 100 miles from Kandahar, as a dress rehearsal for taking Kandahar itself? In early February 2010, he proudly told The New York Times, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” Right.

Mr. Obama will be offered more hare-brained schemes like that. Mr. Hagel would likely recognize them for what they are. He has “been there, done that,” having volunteered for Vietnam, with two Purple Hearts to prove it.

Mr. Hagel has explained his overall attitude in these words: “Committing a nation to war, asking our men and women to make sacrifices that no other Americans will ever be asked to make, is a deadly serious decision. War is not an abstraction.”

Mr. Hagel would be the first Secretary of Defense in 30 years with lessons learned from direct combat experience. About time, I would say. No more Ed Krukowskis sacrificed in fool’s errands, please.

Ray McGovern is a former Army officer and a 27-year veteran of the CIA’s analysis division whose responsibilities included preparing and delivering the President’ Daily Brief. His email is rrmcgovern@gmail.com. [This article originally appeared at the Baltimore Sun.]

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5 comments on “What Hagel Could Give Obama

  1. charles sereno on said:

    I made the following comment yesterday on another site. Admittedly, I’m an observer inexperienced in politics and relatively uninformed about the inner workings of government. For those reasons and also because I respect your analyses, do you think I’m out of line in my misgivings about Obama?
    January 1, 2013 at 2:44 pm
    I suspect that Obama is really interested in gaining greater executive control of the military/intelligence apparatus. If Hagel gets in, he’d be loyal and could serve as a distraction. Obama’s aims are similar to Rumsfeld’s. His tactics are much more sophisticated. E.g., he purposely gave the impression of being unwillingly dragged into the unsuccessful Afghan “surge” by ground commanders, thus deflecting responsibility and appearing wiser.

  2. incontinent reader on said:

    Ray, great commentary.

  3. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Great article. But I wonder, just how much incentive is there to cave in on this? The revolving door between congress and lobbying jobs, senior military and consultant positions, the defense industry and campaign contributions are a vicious, incestuous circle. Constituents employed through congressional spending in districts with shipyards and aircraft factories vote for the same old cronies that are financed by those industries, and those cronies know on which side their bread gets buttered.

    I hear we now have as many Admirals as we do ships in the Navy. Those Admirals and Generals are all looking forward to seven figure consultant and lobbying jobs when they retire. I remember when my uncles came home from Korea. A few years went by when we didn’t have any wars. Well, except the “Cold War” and that little spat over missiles in Cuba. Then came Viet Nam, and we’ve been at war ever since. We don’t have a “Department of Defense” to be Secretary of anymore. They ought to be honest about it. Just go back to the WWII designation: “Department of War”.

    Our strategy has been OFFENSIVE for the last fifty years. Without wars, how can we maintain the “Offense Industry”? Without the charade of an imminent threat to our “ally” in the Middle East, all this “Offense” spending falls on its face. Terrorism has created new offensive frontiers: drones, unfortunately, are becoming obsolete. They don’t admit that on the record, but like any other radio-controlled toy, jamming and a more powerful transmitter can subvert them. Iran has apparently done it twice. The latest talk is development of “autonomous” drone technology: the computer program allows the drone to decide what mission critical decisions to make and what targets to select. That evades jamming. So, what might this technology inspire?

    As the drone war creates new and more hostile enemies, anti-drone warfare will no doubt be in the research and development mix. Our enemies are already working on that. How do you disable an autonomous drone? Well, if you can’t shoot it down, the next best thing is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. Rumor has it the Chinese are developing and perhaps testing already. For those of you not familiar, EMP weapons are basically small, tactical nuclear weapons detonated in the atmosphere.

    Charming, isn’t it? The lobbyists will see to it that we fund and develop the necessary software, the hardened technology, and probably EMP weapons of our own. They like war, because it’s profitable. And, they’re all in bed together. Starting with the most powerful lobby, which represents a foreign government, none of them really want to see a guy get confirmed who might shove them off the tit like so many little piglets on a brood sow. No, I think there’s much too much at stake to let a rational guy get the job.

    But thanks Ray, your efforts are as always most laudable.

  4. Jym Allyn on said:

    Ray (and FG Sanford),
    Thank you for your insight. The function of war is to create an environment of peace rather than the largess for military suppliers. Not only has Hagel lived the experience of combat, but he seems to have actually read Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” unlike anyone in the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration or the “leaders” in the Pentagon during those years.

    And charles sereno seems to be blinded by his anti-Obama animus.

    Obama’s aims are totally the opposite of Rumsfeld who likely wanted us to attack Iraq in 2003 to get back the receipts for the Weapons of Mass Destruction that he sold to Saddam Hussein under Reagan. Hagel is NOT interested in “being loyal” to Obama, but rather is interested in being loyal to the truth. That is why Hagel’s experience and wisdom is of value to Obama, who realizes that success does not come from blind obedience from his supporters, but from the truthful understanding of a situation.

    • charles sereno on said:

      I’m sorry to be misunderstood. Do you really think that Obama, in answer to a question, would deny any difference with Rumsfeld in regard to the responsibility of the US at this moment in history to be the leader of the world? That is what I meant by their common aims. Strategy and tactics are useful terms as long as they are understood as “end” and “means.” Rumsfeld believed in a mean and lean military configuration and tried to create a counter-balancing intelligence operation under better executive control. I think Obama has (so far) successfully furthered these aims. Rumsfeld couldn’t help himself with his impatience and big mouth. Obama is more sophisticated.