Failure of State: They Fired the Wrong Guy

The firing of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense raises more questions than it answers. Is it correct to blame military failures on the military establishment when the executive has not articulated a foreign policy based upon clear and sustainable national interests?  Is it proper to criticize the Secretary of Defense for discussing foreign policy issues when the Secretary of State has failed to bring forth a coherent foreign policy? The state of play in Washington, not only currently, but over the last decade, is that the military is being used to make and execute foreign policy, often on the fly, because the State Department is AWOL. This change in President Obama’s cabinet is a distraction from having to deal with the dilution of the role of Secretary of State and the Department of State. They fired the wrong guy in the wrong department.

The Department of Defense has 3.2 million employees, including service members and civilians, and an annual budget of about $550 billion per year. Contrast this with the Department of State with 70,000 employees and an annual budget of $57 billion per year. The Defense Department as it exists today is a relative newcomer on the block, having only been formed in 1947. President Truman signed the National Security Act 1947 which established a unified military command and re-established a foreign intelligence agency, later evolving into CIA. It also established the National Security Council, National Security Resources Board, and established the Air Force as a branch separate from the Army. It also set up the current Joint Chiefs system and established that the “National Military Establishment” was to be controlled by a single Secretary of Defense.

The continual expansion of the duties of the Department of Defense has promoted a diminution of the culture of the warrior in favor of the culture of management and the corporatization of the U.S. military. Rather than studying military strategy, DoD senior managers get MBAs. Rather than following Lee, Patton, or Schwartzkopf, they follow Ford, McNamara, and Gates.

America certainly was not new to war in 1947 and it certainly had had an established military structure that led it through WWI and WWII. In 1949, the Department of Defense replaced the Department of War. This was more than just a change in name and orientation. It immediately established defense as an ongoing, growing, and neverending enterprise that arguably contributes  to today’s wars without end. Only ten years after this reorganization, President Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander, warned us against allowing the aggrandizement of the “military-industrial complex.”

Besides the exponential growth in size and expense that Ike predicted,  the continual expansion of the duties of the Department of Defense has promoted a diminution of the culture of the warrior in favor of the culture of management and the corporatization of the US military. Rather than studying military strategy, DoD senior managers get MBAs. Rather than following Lee, Patton, or Schwartzkopf, they follow Ford, McNamara, and Gates. Its top-level concerns are more akin to those of a department within a multinational corporation than a national military. The DoD now has assumed many of the functions of the Department of State with the Joint Chiefs of Staff directly involved in foreign policy formulation and the Department of Defense having its own growing intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA.)

These changes in culture and military structure are directly connected to the decline of the Department of State they eventuated and the inability of the Secretary of Defense to actually wage war effectively today. The exponential growth of Defense has led to atrophy at State. It has led to a State Department unable to develop and articulate foreign policy based upon realpolitik and attainable and sustainable national goals.

Henry Kissinger was quite possibly the last American Secretary of State able to fill the role as required and as it was envisioned. Agree with Kissinger or not, the dominant image is that the Vietnam War was ended by President Nixon and  Kissinger. Who can even name President Nixon’s Secretaries of Defense? Today, Secretary of State is the political position you offer to one of your primary opponents so you can keep them in the game, keep their supporters on board, and keep your friends close but enemies closer. Secretary of State John Kerry has decades of foreign policy experience from serving on the Senate Foreign Relation Committee, but he is also known for his inability to articulate policy well (hence his 2004 presidential loss.)

Secretary of Defense is no better a job today. It is so undesirable a position that President Obama has twice found Republicans to fill it. Its no surprise that the first two candidates to replace Secretary Hagel withdrew from the process. The administration has continually undermined and diluted the influence of the position since Robert Gates left. What right-minded person would want to take over as Secretary of Defense after losing two wars, sequestration woes slashing your budget, bigger fish no one has yet begun to fry, and no clear foreign policy in place? Secretary Hagels replacement, Ash Carter, a consummate Pentagon insider, certainly has his work cut out for him. One would find taking over as head coach of the Oakland Raiders a more desirable job.

The Department of Defense’s management and corporate culture may have been necessary for the Cold War, but this culture seems out of step with evolving challenges throughout the world today—Middle East crises, terrorism, insurgencies, Russian resurgence, the economic strength of China and India, technological revolutions, and globalization, among other issues. These are all problems the State Department should tackle, but its weakness and incoherence prevents it from doing so. What is America doing in the world? That is a question for State to answer, not Defense.

DoD is ill-suited for developing American policy responses to these issues which require a more multifaceted view and evaluations from different angles. The military is supposed to be the hammer, and when you walk around with a hammer everything starts to look like a nail. Unburdening the Defense Department of these problems of state and returning it to acting as a Department of War would allow it to concentrate on being ready to fight and win the nation’s wars if and when that time comes. Having a State Department that has the size and ability to articulate a foreign policy for the Department of Defense to follow would assist in this task immeasurably. The Department of Defense is a mission-oriented organization and should be taking its orders from the top, not making them up themselves as they go along.

Perhaps the President should have fired his Secretary of State and not his Secretary of Defense. Perhaps the State Department and his own Executive Office of the President could also use the kind of top-to-bottom restructuring currently underway at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then he could get to work reestablishing a Department of War to oversee the combat needs to support a new foreign policy. America would be best served with the Department of State conducting matters of state and a Department of War focusing on the things of war.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]


Colonel Philip Lisagor, US Army (Retired) served 3 tours in Iraq and was part of Charlie Wilson’s war in the mid-eighties, training Mujahedeen in Peshawar, Pakistan. He lives in Northern Nevada where he trains horses and skis when there is snow. He was educated at the University of Illinois and University of Chicago. He was an Ally Fellow at the Harvard-Kennedy School of Government and recently completed an MFA in Writing at Brian Turner’s program at Sierra Nevada College thanks to his GI Bill benefits.



  1. Jim O'Brasky 8 December, 2014 at 14:27 Reply

    Do you really think that we need cabinet level Secretaries of War, The Navy, The Air Force, and maybe the Special Operations Force, together with Director of Industrial Mobilization, and Chairman of the Office of Scientific Research and Development? That was pretty much the prospect in 1946 that led to the formation of OSD. Each service had its own dedicated industrial base.

    Your real objection is that while the US has the ability to COORDINATE all government agency foreign policy at the National Security Council level, it DOES NOT have the ability to achieve coordinated or integrated IMPLEMENTATION of foreign policy at the regional level. DOD is staffed and resourced to work at the regional COCOM level. The other government agencies are staffed and resourced to work at the national and local levels with the US Ambassador being the personal representative of the President of United States and the head of the country team. This disconnect leads to foreign governments working through their Defense Ministries to conduct regional military diplomacy with the COCOM’S to access responsive large scale US resources and practiced tactical implementation. It leads to regional militarization of international relations with as much adverse impact in foreign governments as in the US government. It also produces the COCOM as proconsul without the authority to act as such

    If we want to solve this problem, restructure the service Operations and Maintenance Budget Elements to separately pay for active member health care; environmental remediation; actual operations and maintenance of operational forces and facilities; and readiness with appropriate expiration dates ( not just one year money). Add a national level budget element for peacetime engagement and small scale crisis response to fund the expansion of the other government agencies to allow their participation in coordinated and integrated implementation of foreign policy at the regional level with the the current COCOM Political Advisor raised to Under Secretary of State for the Region and leading the Other Government Agency regional team. This Under Secretary of State and the COCOM would be jointed at the hip. Eventually a Viceroy like office, Vice President for the Region, would be needed – for the first 20 years – a carefully selected series of former COCOM’s and USoSR’s. To jump start the OGA expansion, channel the most suitable 10% of the departing DOD members to the OGA’s at mid-level allowing them to retain reserve status, their security clearances, and networks with their classmates. This would lead to the creation of a broad US engagement service with all new members doing a BASIC SCHOOL based on the USMC THE BASIC SCHOOL expanded to double length,and designed to accommodate the OGA input with the USMC input.

    Finally, DOD would get smaller by about 5%.

  2. H.H. GAFFNEY 9 December, 2014 at 14:35 Reply

    Neither the author nor the commentator have the foggiest notion of how the U.S. government operates. They also seem to have read nothing that the Administration has put out. Nor have they given us the slightest idea of how to handle Ukraine (not a military problem — it’s an economic problem) nor Daesh. And I can’t imagine them providing anything intelligent on Asia policy. There’s obviously nothing for them to draw from the Bush Administration policies and experience.

    As for SecDefs under Nixon, they were Laird, Richardson, and Schlesinger. I worked in OSD under all three. Laird and Schlesinger were geniuses; Richardson was off to a good start, but was drawn away to go get rid of a crooked Vice President.

  3. Duncan McSporran 9 December, 2014 at 14:39 Reply

    The proof of this argument is simple. Who do nations outside the USA recognise more? Secretary of State or Defense? Which arm of the government do governments engage with more? State or DoD?

    Arguably even prior to his resignation last month, Hagel was more visible on the world stage and more recognisable by the people of the world than the US Secretary of State.

    Unequivocally nations deal with DoD more than State. This is because for many nations the military-industrial-congressional complex that is a foundation stone of modern US political process, has been rightly identified as the centre of gravity in their efforts to leverage US patronage or involvement.

    In many cases since the onset of the post-Emirate Afghan conflict, DoD has been seen to “lean into” operational commitments, often with initially small scale contributions. This has been done with plausible justification and support from congressional bodies, but before State has even made a clear National policy statement on the issue. Whilst not the point of origin of the term Mission Creep, this period has come to epitomize many US commitments since 2001, including Yemen and Somalia. Mission creep in itself is characterised by poor strategic vision, an inability to express a clearly defined end state and the strength to ensure that this is achieved without the requirement for a step-change in required resources.

    State should be providing this vision and should be the oversight for each and every foreign commitment to which the US commits DOD resources. This doesn’t appear to be the case, as it has not stepped up in each case and defined why the US is involved and what the realistic defined objectives are. It is arguable that this is due to the atrophy mentioned in the article – State simply does not have the muscle power to achieve control over the burgeoning industry friendly conflicts and overseas commitments that DoD commits itself to. From a non-partisan viewpoint this would appear to be why State has spectacularly failed on a global scale.

    Yes, every day the chatter of global diplomacy carries on with State, but in many cases merely as a segue into discussions with Defense. Furthermore, State plays a part in a world where less and less nations care about US foreign policies, partly because the US is unable to clearly express it’s role on a global stage that is teaming with actors.

    That role is the Secretary of State’s to define. It would appear that in the case of John Kerry, there is some truth in indicating he was chosen for the role not because of his prowess on the stage but because, as a vanquished presidential nominee and Democratic grandee, he needed the job. Whilst this may be a slightly frivolous comment, it has been clear that since taking on the position, John Kerry has been overmatched by the task at hand without having to take on a battle with DoD to re-assert the State Department role in leading US Foreign Policy, rather than following where DoD has already decided to go.

    So, maybe the premise of the article is correct, but it is hard to believe that without a re-structuring of the 2 departments in question, that any one person is strong enough or determined enough to succeed where John Kerry has come up short.

  4. PL Jeck 9 December, 2014 at 15:57 Reply

    My guess is, regardless of who the SECDEF or Sec of State is, the current administration will undermine their authority.

  5. Taki 10 December, 2014 at 04:34 Reply

    Great analysis….. interesting to note that senior DOD managers are technocrats. This however should be a plus rather than a minus in executing their job.

    On a separate note fp execution is by nature a difficult path to tread….. on the contrary fp articulation is something else…relatively easy. The best govts can do under the circumstances is try and be consistent.The hire and fire approach is often a counter productive approach especially in institutions facing systemic challenges.

  6. Jay Reardon 10 December, 2014 at 08:13 Reply

    The DoD has more BAND members that State has DIPLOMATS. Change that balance and the budgets behind it and I might take this article seriously.

    • Chris Miller 10 December, 2014 at 16:28 Reply

      Surely fixing this very imbalance of the ratio of band members to foreign service officers is exactly what this article refers to. So perhaps you should take it seriously. If you read it.

  7. CRAESQ 10 December, 2014 at 15:43 Reply

    Article fails to appreciate the new concept of war, which is and will continue to be a counter-insurgency model that requires intel, diplomacy, and both direct and indirect military effort, large and small. This is why State Dept is irrelevant now, and will likely continue to be. Giving State some of DoD’s “new” responsibilities will only bifurcate the information and effort and reduce effectiveness.

    • Chris Miller 10 December, 2014 at 16:27 Reply

      Your assumption that COIN is new or will or should remain the way we go to war is a false assumption. It’s a choice, not a necessity. We should get out of the COIN business altogether and focus our efforts on defeating bigger players who are getting a free pass while we play at the margins.

  8. Jonnie B Good 10 December, 2014 at 19:38 Reply

    Vietnam war was ended by Kissinger and the crook who got elected to your presidency? i was under the impression that Vietnam war was ended by Vietnam – by defeating US? must’ve been a global conspiracy that printed all those history books. Yes, for a dump polity like you, Kissinger would be deserving. the guy and the admin that engineered China’s rise by giving trade access – would’ve been dead by now without that lifeline. and also the admin that blossomed that beautiful partnership with Pak. pak-china-us trilateral. brilliant idea that was. regular einsteins. go have some tea

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