Military officers assigned to the Pentagon do not vote on who becomes secretary of defense, but if they did, former Sen. Chuck Hagel might finish in second place.
As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s expected exit drew closer over the past year, several senior Pentagon officers expressed admiration for Michele Flournoy, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy from 2009 to February last year.
Now the Pentagon is bracing for a potential new boss who spent 12 years in the Senate and currently oversees a Washington foreign policy think tank but whose agenda for the armed services is murky at best.
“Many were excited at the prospect of Michele Flournoy because she had previously garnered a great deal of trust and respect, and was not thought to be a political animal seeking change for change’s sake,” an Army officer who is assigned to the Pentagon and who fought in Afghanistan told The Washington Times. “Hagel, on the other hand, is a source of concern to many who perceive him to come to the position with a blind ambition.”
President Obama has nominated Mr. Hagel to succeed Mr. Panetta amid growing protests from Senate Republicans who view the chairman of the Atlantic Council as being too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel.
Mrs. Flournoy would have been the nation’s first female defense secretary. “She would have received a much more favorable reception from Republicans,” a Senate staffer told The Times.
Mr. Hagel arrived in the Senate as a conservative Nebraska Republican who voted for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He left in 2009 as an Obama ally and one of the fiercest critics of President Bush on nearly every aspect of foreign policy, especially on dealing with the Islamist state of Iran, for which he advocates unconditional talks and U.S. business investment.
Since 2009, Mr. Hagel has served on the Defense Policy Board, a government group of former officers, officials and specialists who meet periodically to advise the defense secretary.
“He had turned left of left by then,” said a source familiar with policy board meetings. “I guess it is the influence of the Obama administration. He spoke against military interventions, especially Iran.”
Mr. Hagel’s detailed views on the use of power, the $633 billion defense budget and the size of the military will come more into focus during Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearings.
He would inherit a department that is grappling with $480 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years and the prospect of a further $485 billion reduction through a process called sequestration. Mr. Panetta’s first round of cuts kept most major weapon systems, including the increasingly costly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Even if Congress and the White House reach a deal to scuttle sequestration, another agreement likely would require some additional cuts and present Mr. Hagel with immediate budget decisions.
The past three defense secretaries — Donald H. Rumsfeld, Robert M. Gates and Mr. Panetta — had war as their top priority.
With all combat troops out of Iraq and most scheduled to leave Afghanistan by next year, Mr. Hagel would have a chance to put his imprint on the force and an unwieldy procurement culture that produces expensive weapon systems.
“I think Sen. Hagel is an excellent choice to head the Department of Defense,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a key command adviser in Iraq during the 2007 troop surge. “He is well-versed in Washington politics, and having seen the sharp end of combat in Vietnam gives him a unique perspective on policies that could very well put America’s young men and women into harm’s way.”
Army Times, an independent newspaper, published an article about Mr. Hagel’s service as an Army enlisted man who was awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. The newspaper has a following among active-duty and retired soldiers. “A SECDEF who doesn’t want to go to war?” one reader commented. “What was Obama thinking? Maybe now the U.S. will develop a foreign policy that doesn’t list war as the first option.”
Some residual distrust about Mr. Obama as commander in chief remains among the top brass.
Retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who resigned his Afghanistan command after remarks in a magazine article, told The New York Times this month: “With the start of the Obama administration, we had a financial crisis, we had a new administration, and yet we had this compressed decision-making timeline on Afghanistan before people had been able to mature relationships and trust to go at this as effectively as I think they would have liked to.”
Asked whether trust improved, he said, “I think it’s a problem that needs to be worked at.”
Mrs. Flournoy earned that trust, military sources say. She served three years as defense policy chief before resigning to spend more time with her family. With Kurt M. Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, Mrs. Flournoy also co-founded the Center for a New American Security, where she still serves on the board.