It’s a bit astonishing to think about, but President Barack Obama has now been criticized by three secretaries of defense and one secretary of state who served under him. And, while the message may sometimes have been more implicit than explicit, or more subtle from some lips than others, a seemingly shared concern is that he may be riskily mismanaging our national security.
The most recent words came from Chuck Hagel, who resigned (or maybe was in effect fired) as defense secretary. Some say he was too unsure of himself from the start to do the job right and other analysts chime in that no one with that job is really allowed to perform it under Obama. They say his national security advisors in the White House run things, Pentagon expertise be damned.
Hagel thought those advisors had devised a half-baked Syria policy, said so in a letter, and then, prior to the announcement of his coming departure, showed up on the Charlie Rose TV show with deeper concerns. This former Republican senator who had grave doubts about U.S. involvement in Iraq and was named in part to help reduce our military, suddenly found ISIS on his plate. There was also Russia’s reborn imperialism, China’s wish to rule more of Asia, the issue of Iran maybe getting WMD, and a realization the military needed to grow, not decline.
The budget cuts he was supposed to be guiding would make the military the smallest it had been since before World War II, and, he told Rose, this nation will not then be ready or capable of doing what we need to do. The job of a leader, he said, is to do what we are not yet doing – getting ready for the future.
He did not specify Obama as the leader he had in mind, and the cuts are due to budgetary combat between Obama and Congress. Republicans clearly share fault here. But it has been reported that Hagel has been upset that Obama wasn’t pushing harder to upgrade the budget, and Leon Panetta, who also served as secretary of defense under Obama, went after him in saying he did not have the passion to bring Congress around, as he thinks could have been done.
Panetta also thinks Obama could and should have kept occupying troops in Iraq after the war and, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, thinks we could have done more to help the good-guy rebels in Syria. Hagel’s letter on fighting ISIS in Syria is said to have raised questions about whether we were helping or hurting the country’s despotic president, Bashar Assad. Another former defense secretary, Robert Gates, has said we will not defeat ISIS with “no boots on the ground,” as Obama pledged, although we will soon have 3,000 troops in Iraq.
Among other concerns, Gates agrees that cutting the military the way we are right now is a huge, huge mistake, and that’s perhaps the most important defense issue. As big and mighty as we are, we have to stay that way and grow our defense at a reasonable, waste-wary rate if we are going to be able to deal successfully with all kinds of situations that are more than plausible, as Hagel said. Those saying we cannot afford it should know defense spending right now put at 16.3 percent of the budget and is not the crucial deficit threat. The major budgetary issue is entitlements and must be refashioned anyway if we are not to be sunk by debt.
All of which brings us back to Obama.
He won’t listen to voters in the midterm elections. He certainly refuses to listen to the political opposition in Congress. But can’t he at least listen to people he once chose to serve him as Cabinet officers?
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.