Obama's political, policy and Pentagon dilemma

Gopal Ratnam / Bloomberg News /

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a growing dilemma in his choice of a new defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta.

Having dropped U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and named Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Obama runs the risk of appearing weak if he bows to political opposition again and chooses someone other than former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon.

Picking another candidate would show for a second time “that the president’s important choices for personnel can be vetoed by two or three senators,” said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, who specializes in U.S. foreign and defense policy. “The White House will come out of this significantly weakened.”

If Obama sticks with Hagel in the face of opposition from an ad hoc coalition of Republican advocates of muscular defense policies, Democratic supporters of Israel and gay rights activists, though, Obama might be forced to spend political capital he needs for the bigger battle over the federal budget and deficit reduction.

The leading alternatives are Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and former Undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy.

The choice has policy implications as well as political ones. Carter is an expert on managing the Defense Department’s byzantine bureaucracy and $600 billion-plus annual budget. Flournoy is a defense policy expert with close ties to Obama. Both, said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, would cause the disciplined Obama White House less heartburn than would Hagel.

Supporters argue that Hagel’s service record — he would be the first former enlisted soldier to run the Pentagon — and his blunt manner would serve him well in curbing defense spending and standing up to big contractors and their congressional allies, as well as four-star general officers who have no time for sergeants.

But he’s drawn criticism from some Republicans for his public opposition to the Bush administration’s troop surge during the Iraq war, questioning unilateral economic sanctions against Iran, and citing the influence of the “Jewish lobby” on behalf of Israel.

The Obama administration may be floating nominees’ names to assess opposition because, with negotiations over taxes and spending programs under way, “you don’t want to spend time arguing over nominations,” she said. Discussions over fiscal matters also may delay Obama naming his cabinet appointments before his second inauguration on Jan. 21.