Reading Tea Leaves of Political Appointments Not Yet Made

National Journal's Michael Hirsh read the tea leaves in a comment he got from the White House and reported that the Obama team was going wobbly on Hagel because of the line, "we are considering other candidates."  To my friend and colleague Hirsh this sounded like a comment he had received during the Susan Rice imbroglio in which an official had planted with him something along the lines that "the President was vexed between Susan Rice and John Kerry for the Secretary of State position."  To Hirsh, this seemed like a signal to Rice that the President wanted her to stand down.

The bottom line is that for those, even myself, who have argued that Hagel's nomination was still kicking, or withering, assumptions are being made about what would seem logical, what would a president faced with a neocon onslaught, lack of unanimity in the Senate, and the potential for yet another fight with the GOP (well, mostly the GOP) do when the Obama team may have thought this would be a smoother ride.

So, many are now thinking that of the two other leading candidates, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and is the former president of the Center for a New American Security, Flournoy will get the nod. 

I listened to MSNBC commentator Krystal Ball chat with show anchor Karen Finney say that it would be awesome to have Flournoy because she was a mom and had kids -- and this would be a great signal to the country to have a woman in that key position. One part of me agrees that the appointment of Flournoy would break another glass ceiling for women, but there will be questions about both of these candidate's capabilities and perspectives as well that have not been scrutinized.

What are their views on Iran? Should we have bombed yesterday? On the Bob Gates view that anyone who would commit U.S. forces to large ground wars and occupations should have his or her head examined? On the privatization of the U.S. military so that despite spending gobs more money, the number of military personnel in uniform has declined while the contractor surge has grown unabated? How does one restructure the military in an age of budget austerity? Don Rumsfeld thought through some of this in his pre-9/11 tenure. What are their views?

Senator Jack Reed and former secretary of State Colin Powell have both been mentioned as well -- but both seem equally, personally committed to keeping their names off the list of likely choices.

What I heard from my executive branch source made a lot of sense to me today. That many in the punditocracy and D.C.'s strategic class are hyperventilating about these candidates and what we think Obama will do and won't do with scant evidence or commentary from the president or his team. The fact is that the White House has been highly cryptic at best about who is on the list and how they are proceeding.

If the White House does not go with Hagel, the Obama team has a problem as they will be appearing to reject a two-time Purple Heart recipient who was nearly a candidate for president of the United States, who served as a sergeant in Vietnam, and who believes that the Pentagon must be reshaped and remodeled to deliver security to the American public on leaner budgets. Hagel is a defense cuts guy -- and the person in this job will be spending 90 percent of his time not dealing with Israelis or other governments but wrestling with generals about how to rebalance America's national security priorities from low-return wars in the Middle East and South Asia to higher-return concerns in Asia. And they'd be conceding to a lot of folks whom the president just wiped the floor with in the last election.

Michael Hirsh has also raised the obvious but neglected point that Hagel is one who got the wars right -- in that they were bad wars -- and broke ranks with his party and pal John McCain in favor of the broader American national interest. Hirsh says he should not be punished for that -- but should be rewarded.

So, if the source I spoke to is right and the media discussion has distorted what is fantasy and fact and is now quite distant from what the real process is with President Obama and Chuck Hagel, all the better. 

We are still reading tea leaves in this appointment process -- which should be more transparent, managed in the halls of Congress in a legally scripted process, and less of a nightmare for the potential nominee.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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