Hagel's Successor May Face A Tough Nomination Process
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For more on the challenge of getting a new defense secretary confirmed in a Republican-led the Senate, we turn to NPR national security correspondent David Welna.
Hey there, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So far what have you heard? I mean, how much of a surprise was this really, this resignation by Chuck Hagel?
WELNA: Well, it really was not that much of a surprise. There had been talk over the past month, both in private and public, that Hagel's days were numbered. He seemed to want to keep the job, but it did not help his standing much at the White House that a memo he wrote which was highly critical of the president's strategy for fighting the so-called Islamic State in Syria got leaked a few weeks back. That leak was seen as a move by Hagel to portray himself as influential and to counter-talk of him being too meek in White House policy discussions and having too little clout. It also seemed that Hagel, the one Republican in the Cabinet, was not always in sync with the White House while talking about defense issues.
CORNISH: And as we mentioned, the next nominee for defense secretary is going to face a Republican-controlled Senate. How difficult is this fight going to be?
WELNA: Well, a lot rides on just who that nominee might be, but even before we know who that is, it's pretty clear that nominee will be getting a lot of scrutiny. Hagel himself went through a bitter and combative confirmation hearing early last year when Republicans were not even in charge and only four of his former GOP Senate colleagues even voted to confirm him. This time the confirmation hearing will be chaired, as Mara mentioned, by the man who lost to Obama in the race for the White House six years ago, Arizona Republican John McCain. But although McCain battled Hagel's nomination, he now has only praise for the defense secretary. McCain was on Phoenix radio station KFYI today after talking with Hagel and the senator said the real problem was bad policy being made at the White House, not Hagel.
(SOUNDBITE OF KFYI INTERVIEW)
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Believe me he was up to the job. It was a job that he was given where he really was never really brought in to that real tight circle inside the White House that makes all the decisions - which has put us into the incredible debacle that we're in the today throughout the world - so I thank Chuck Hagel for his service and I know that he was very, very frustrated.
WELNA: McCain also so said when his committee holds confirmation hearings for a new defense secretary, one thing that he and others will be demanding is a strategy for fighting the Islamic State. He clearly thinks the current strategy is not working.
CORNISH: And you said the nominee's important, whose names are being mentioned today as possible successors to Hagel?
WELNA: Well, first and foremost is Michele Flournoy. She served in the first three years of the Obama administration as the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for policy and she currently runs a defense policy think tank here in Washington that she co-founded. She's publicly been supportive of the administration's policies in Afghanistan and fighting the Islamic State, which could be problematic for Republicans.
Another contender is Ashton Carter, who left the Pentagon as deputy defense secretary shortly after Hagel arrived. Whoever is nominated, Hagel plans to stay on until that person is confirmed.
CORNISH: In the meantime, challenges that he or she will face in the two years that remain of President Obama's presidency?
WELNA: It's quite a list - winding down the war in Afghanistan, possibly winding up the war with the Islamic State, dealing with big defense spending cutbacks due to sequestration. China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Guantanamo, along with sexual harassment in the military and military suicides - it's a lot to take on and you have to wonder, who'd want to do it in this lame-duck administration?
CORNISH: David thanks so much.
WELNA: You're welcome, Audie.
CORNISH: That's NPR's national security correspondent David Welna.
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