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The 3:00 AM Call

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
January 15, 2013
Foreign Policy

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President Obama's nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as the secretary of defense led to an outcry from a number of Beltway mind-readers who have apparently mastered Hagel's positions on Iran (too soft), gay diplomats (too hard), and Israel (too anti). Opposing these clairvoyants are pundits claiming that it does not matter who Obama nominates as his secretary of defense, since policymaking will be concentrated in the White House regardless. The White House has promoted this notion, with Obama's spokesperson Jay Carney stating: "Sen. Hagel's records on those issues (Israel and Iran) and so many others demonstrated that he is in sync with the president's policies."

Missing from the peanut gallery is any substantive discussion of the secretary of defense's statutory and customary role in the use of U.S. military power. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution declares the president "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy," which gives him the ultimate authority for decisions to go to war, or to conduct high-risk military operations -- like the Mayaguez Incident in 1975 or the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011. As part of the "National Command Authority," however, defense secretaries also play a critical role in decisions to use force. These decisions include approving troops and supplies in support of ongoing wars and authorizing imminent military operations.

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