As The Post reports,”Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has decided to allow women to serve in combat roles, a watershed policy decision that follows years of calls for a fully inclusive military, defense officials said Wednesday. Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, are expected to formally announce the change Thursday, the officials said. The Army, Marines and other services will then develop plans to open jobs in ground combat units, such as the infantry, to women.” The merits and the policy implementation will be much discussed. However, this only reenforces the reality that the secretary of defense is a major executive, responsible for personnel issues and building consensus.
Putting aside the dramatic threats we face (and Chuck Hagel’s enthusiasm for slashing the military and his positions on terrorist groups), is Hagel really the person to preside over a major personnel and cultural adjustment within the military? His prior position regarding abortion services for women raped in the military suggests he hasn’t put the concerns of military women at the forefront (although he now says, sure, he’ll go along). But more to the point, management requires tact, a deft touch and an engaging manner.
Concern about Hagel’s poor interpersonal skills has heightened meaning if the military is undertaking a change like women in combat. A key senator’s adviser, reacting to the building buzz about Hagel’s temperament, was blunt : “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories surface in the coming days regarding the senator’s strange tolerance for what most view as unacceptable behavior in the workplace.”
Hagel is not only going to need a policy confirmation conversion on every issue, but also going to need to show a new side of himself that colleagues never saw — someone who can get along and lead people. The irony here is that President Obama could have picked Michele Flournoy who would be exceptionally well suited to undertake these challenges, and would be a glass-ceiling breaker herself. Why Obama chose to make his Cabinet look like the old boys club rather than a diverse group with strong opinions and respected service continues to mystify many on Capitol Hill.