Hagel Is Out; Big Spending Is In

The President announced Monday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned, just days after announcing his commitment to increase spending for the U.S. nuclear enterprise by $7.5 billion dollars over the next five years. For a top Pentagon official with a habitually good record on nuclear non-proliferation, this was a pretty bad last move. And it could be a sign of things to come.

William Hartung, the Director of Arms and Security Project at Center for International Policy, posed an important question in an article for Huffington Post this week: what if Hagel had resigned for a reason? Hartung posits that Hagel’s resignation was “a missed opportunity to put our security policy on a sounder footing at a time of increasing uncertainty.”  Hagel certainly could have resigned ‘on principle,’ in protest of the administration’s drift toward a more hawkish foreign policy. But it doesn’t look like he did.

Helene Cooper of the New York Times posits that Obama was too close with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Secretary of State John Kerry to give them the axe; Hagel was the easy pick. In times of trouble, the sad truth is that a scapegoat sometimes has to take the blame. But regardless of the reason for Hagel’s dismissal, a firmer truth remains: a shift is taking place in Washington that’s likely to lead to higher spending.

Hagel assumed office in February 2013 at a time of projected peace. He was brought on to oversee the end of the war in Afghanistan and help trim down the Pentagon budget. Now, whether we like it or not, the U.S. is headed back into war in the Middle East and has revised its exit plan for Afghanistan.

Glen Thrush of POLITICO writes that Hagel didn’t see himself as “the kind of gung-ho, wartime consigliere Obama needed as he recalibrates his national security strategy to deal with a new round of conflict in the Middle East.” It follows that a new leader in the Pentagon would be part of a larger strategic pivot towards ramped up military engagement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

With an increased wartime spending request and a larger base budget request on the way, the Obama administration seems primed to amp up the pressure on Congress to increase Pentagon spending, a move that could ultimately bust the budget caps.

While there is no obvious front-runner to replace Hagel, Michéle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed have already pulled their hats out of the ring.  That leaves current and former Deputy Defense Secretaries Robert Work and Ashton Carter. Both men are considered technocrats with experience maneuvering the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. But their mission at the helm of the Pentagon, should they accept, will largely be dictated by a strategy already set in motion by the White House.

So far, that strategy looks like spend, spend, spend.