In six years, President Obama has had one successful Secretary of Defense. That was Robert M. Gates whom the President inherited from President George W. Bush. The second half of his tenure was under President Obama and that was the longest tenure so far for the President.
Now, he’s on his fourth DefSec in the form of Ashton Carter. Whether Carter’s unfortunate remarks about Iraqi troop fortitude were his own or sent down through the President is unclear, but either way it looks bad for the President. Either his Defense Secretary is not aligned with him or he is using Carter as a proxy to deliver messages that keep him clear of insulting the Iraqis. Both scenarios are signs of poor leadership.
To make things worse, the President then sent Vice President Joe Biden to deliver a counter message from the White House. This is either Mickey Mouse politics or another sign of poor foreign relations understanding by the President.
Harry Truman was the last President to have four Defense Secretaries (though Richard Nixon had an acting DefSec in William P. Clements for 39 days after moving Elliot L Richardson from DefSec to Attorney General). With a year and a half left in his Presidency and Carter already getting into hot water in his third month as DefSec, we might see a fifth appointee under the Obama administration. What’s happening? Why does the President have such a hard time keeping people in place to lead the Pentagon’s efforts around the world?
The problem is that President Obama does not consider the military to be an important aspect of his foreign affairs. He has two criteria that seem to be apparent in his appointees: they cannot be “hawkish” and they cannot be friendly towards Israel. It’s as if he likes to place weaker people into the position to check off the box and move along with other pressing issues. Unfortunately, this stance has contributed to a weakening of the military and an unwillingness to stomach conflict. Even Bill Clinton was more assertive with the United States military presence.
Some would say that it’s a stark and necessary contrast to the eight years of military blunders we suffered under George W. Bush, but the mistakes that Bush made have only been accentuated by President Obama’s failures. We are in a precarious situation with Russia, China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. All of these challenges can be directly attributed to the failure of the President to position the United States with a posture of strength and the problems he’s had with Defense Secretaries is a clear sign of his failures.
Will Carter be thrown to the wolves or will he be swept under the carpet and eventually replaced? With the President in legacy-building mode, we are going to go with the former as the most likely scenario.