It took almost 40 years but the VietCong finally nailed Chuck Hagel, the only Vietnam enlistee to serve as Secretary of Defense. He was one of three people at the White House podium, taking a bullet for his Commander-in-Chief and offering his resignation like a good soldier even though his leadership was the only one not seriously in question.
Whether he was fired or voluntarily resigned, Chuck Hagel’s decision signified only one thing: Barack Obama no longer enjoys the confidence of the American military establishment. Basically, Sergeant Hagel resigned because his generals either would not or could not.
By law, the Secretary of Defense is the President’s alter ego, his twin in a Pentagon chain of command that begins at the top with a collective entity known as the NCA, or National Command Authorities. In the American civil-military relationship, civilians decide the proper course of action for the nation before turning over those decisions and orders to the generals and admirals who are sworn to carry them out. Generals declare war only in republics where, speaking historically, bananas have been grown. But here in these semi-United States, civilians decide either to make wars or to end them.
Before Mr. Obama came to Washington, we had a constitutional system that separated powers and divided authority over the armed services – remember those good old days? Under that system, the NCA shares its collective authority with Congress, which raises armies and equips navies.
So it was fitting that Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the defense secretary for coordinating closely with Congress and always putting the troops first. “Chuck Hagel was an excellent Defense Secretary, and a friend. He was given a thankless task of an underfunded Defense Department, growing threats, and intrusive White House micromanagement.” Our Constitution makes Chairman McKeon one of the principal players in the American military establishment: yet apparently he has no confidence in Mr. Obama’s leadership either.
So who does that leave?
Inevitably, attention will now shift back to the generals and admirals, particularly the individual and collective leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of them of course serve at the pleasure of the president, who has dismissed more flag officers than any chief executive since Joseph Stalin.
But Congress has certain rights all well, a principle thus far not actively disputed by the White House, but these days who knows? If it is still operational, our system of checks and balances gives Congress the right to require the armed service chiefs to present their congressional testimony with sworn certifications: that their testimony is based on their best professional judgment, and that it is given independently, despite what the executive chain of command might think.
Once those clarifications are better understood on both sides of the witness table, the new Congressional leadership is better prepared to ask the Chiefs some urgent questions:
When you testified last fall that sequestration might mean that your service could not provide the combatant forces required to execute our wartime contingency plans, did you receive any criticism from your superiors in the military chain of command?
And can you tell us what bottom-line military capabilities are most threatened by sequestration?
How would U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and globally, be affected if Iran actually succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons?
Are our military capabilities in the Middle East already so short-handed that the prospect of Iranian “boots on the ground” is the only realistic way to destroy ISIS?
When should a serving military officer feel obliged to resign his or her office? Does such an action either threaten or strengthen the American civil-military tradition?
Mr. Hagel’s departure means that these questions, while urgent, will only be part of the larger task of assessing the damage done to American defenses by Barack Obama. What makes that responsibility more painful is the certainty that parallel judgments are being made simultaneously in other places. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are only the most obvious adversaries who may be tempted to make operational judgments based on the presumption of American weakness.
Even as Americans belatedly awaken to their president’s weaknesses, why should we wait until things become more difficult? In its long history of unpreparedness, America has always triumphed because their enemies allowed them time to recover. So why should we similarly complacent? Why not strike now?
Such logic is why the Romans believed that preparing for war was the only sure path to peace. The Chinese are more subtle and wish only for us to “live in interesting times.” Interesting for them, maybe but much tougher for us.
A version of this piece previously appeared on Washington Times