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With Hagel Out, Past Contenders Eyed As Next U.S. Defense Chief

  • Luke Johnson

Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, is seen as a top replacement for Chuck Hagel.

Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, is seen as a top replacement for Chuck Hagel.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s abrupt announcement of his resignation on November 24 leaves a top cabinet position open in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration and early speculation suggests that candidates previously considered for the job could be tapped to lead the Pentagon.

The possible successors to Hagel, who Obama said will stay on until a replacement is confirmed by the Senate, include U.S. Senator Jack Reed (Democrat-Rhode Island), former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, "The New York Times" quoted Obama administration officials as saying.

All three have been considered for the job before at various points under the Obama administration, according to numerous U.S. media reports.

Here is a rundown on each of them.

Michele Flournoy

Flournoy was passed over for Hagel in 2012. She said she left the administration at the end of 2011 to "rebalance" her life and spend more time with her family. She returned to lead the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank she co-founded. Several of the organization’s experts have been hired to work in the Obama administration.

While at the Pentagon, Flournoy helped formulate a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan for the White House, a strategy that the Obama administration officially moved away from after her departure. If nominated and confirmed, she would be the first female secretary of defense in U.S. history.

Ashton Carter

Carter served as deputy secretary of defense, the No. 2 position in the Defense Department, from 2011 to 2013 and also as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under President Bill Clinton. He was also passed over in favor of Hagel in 2012. Carter has been a longtime professor at Harvard University and served as an adviser to the investment bank Goldman Sachs and to Global Technology Partners, which advises investment firms on the technology and defense industries.

Jack Reed

A U.S. senator since 1997 and the outgoing chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Reed has already said he is not interested in the job.

"He has made it very clear that he does not wish to be considered for secretary of defense or any other cabinet position," his spokesman, Chip Unruh, said in a statement. "He just asked the people of Rhode Island to hire him for another six-year term and plans on honoring that commitment."

Reed won reelection for another six-year term in November. Leaving to become secretary of defense would mean leaving his seat for a job that lasts about two years, though it is possible that the next Pentagon chief could be renominated by the next U.S. president in 2016.

Reed was one of 23 senators to vote against authorization for the Iraq war in 2002.

He has generally been a solid, if low-key, backer of the Obama administration. In September, he released a statement praising Obama for his strategy to combat Islamic State militants.

Influence On Strategy

Flournoy and Carter both served in the Defense Department when relations were tense with the Obama administration, says Gordon Adams, a professor at American University.

"I think it's pretty clear that Michele Flournoy and Ash Carter both argued inside the administration, when they were in senior positions in the Defense Department, for more resources and, in some cases, tougher foreign policy stances than the White House wanted to do," Adams says.

Hagel's other potential successors include current Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, according to U.S. media reports.

While the Pentagon job may be one of Obama's remaining few top appointments, Michael Cohen, a fellow at the Century Foundation who worked in the State Department under President Clinton, notes that decision-making on foreign policy largely rests with the White House.

"They'll listen to what cabinet secretaries have to say, but ultimately they're the ones making the decision," Cohen said. "I don't think Hagel had much influence on strategic decision-making inside the White House, and I seriously doubt that the next secretary of defense would have much to input either."

Hagel's own exit follows a reported disagreement with national security adviser Susan Rice over the White House's Syria strategy. Hagel also had tense relations with Obama’s close advisers and former election campaign members, "The New York Times" reported.