Barack Obama and Christine Fox (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Congressional GOP lawmakers and aides are responding to Christine Fox’s appointment as the Pentagon’s interim No. 2 civilian official largely with a collective shrug.
Still, most say the White House should nominate a permanent deputy defense secretary nominee without further delay. Several defense analysts questioned Fox’s ability to manage such a large organization, something one senior House defense hawk made clear the permanent deputy must possess.
Defense News reported Tuesday morning what the Pentagon would make official later in the day: President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have tapped Fox to temporarily replace Ashton Carter, who will leave the deputy’s office for the final time Wednesday.
Fox impressed Hagel during her work on a strategic review she helped lead earlier this year while still director of the building’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) shop.
The appointment struck some Capitol Hill sources as odd. One source said installing an acting deputy secretary is the latest example of indecisiveness by the Obama national security team. Why not just send up a nominee in the period between Carter’s announced departure — Oct. 10 — and his actual last day two months later?
But instead of blasting the Obama White House — as they have for five years —for the delay, congressional GOP lawmakers and aides are holding fire on the Fox news.
The closest that several Obama critics are coming to raising concerns is to remind the White House the deputy secretary position requires Senate confirmation.
Donelle Harder, communications director for Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News that her boss “believes it is the constitutional duty of the Senate to determine qualifications of those who go through the nomination process.”
“Ms. Fox is not a nominee, and Inhofe hopes that Secretary Hagel will quickly put forward someone to replace Deputy Secretary Carter so that the position can be filled by someone who has been properly vetted,” Harder said.
“I am glad to see Secretary Hagel proactive in ensuring this position is covered until the Senate can vet the next nominee to replace Deputy Secretary Carter,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Ms. Fox is now in a place of leadership to help prevent further hemorrhaging of the defense budget that has taken place under this administration. I urge her to take this responsibility seriously and use her interim time to ensure the military budget operates in the best interest of our national security.”
House Armed Services Committee seapower and projection forces subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., said “the deputy secretary position is a tremendously important one, responsible for the day-to-day management of the Defense Department.”
Forbes called Fox “well-qualified to hold this post in the interim.”
A senior HASC Republican aide told Defense News that committee members and staff believe she is “qualified for the role of acting [deputy].”
“She is a known quantity to the committee, we have worked well with her in the past,” the senior aide said.
Several members and aides did not directly address questions posed by a reporter about Fox’s qualifications.
The deputy secretary position essentially is the chief operating officer of one of the largest government bureaucracies in the world. Yet, the largest entity Fox ever managed was the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research entity of which she was the president. And she ran the Pentagon’s CAPE shop, as well.
But lacking from her resume is the kind of management experience of large government and private-sector organizations and companies that have dominated the resumes of previous deputies, such as Gordon England, William Lynn, John Hamre and others.
A close parsing of Forbes’ statement appears to allude to the need for a strong manager alongside Hagel to run the department.
“I hope the president will select a permanent appointee who brings the experience and management prowess needed to steer the Pentagon through our exceedingly difficult budgetary and security environment,” Forbes said.
While GOP lawmakers and aides largely resisted questioning Fox’s appointment, some longtime defense observers raised doubts.
Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate defense aide now with the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, called her appointment a “big yawn.”
“She was a zero at CAPE so I’m sure she’s Carter’s preferred replicant,” Wheeler said, “and just fine as a politically acceptable place holder for Hagel.”
Hagel, in a statement, called Fox “a brilliant defense thinker and proven manager.
“As a key leader of the Strategic Choices and Management Review, she helped identify the challenges, choices and opportunities for reform facing the department during this period of unprecedented budget uncertainty,” Hagel said. “She will be able to help me shape our priorities from day one because she knows the intricacies of the department’s budget, programs and global operations better than anyone.”
Still, another veteran Pentagon analyst said a deputy with more management skills and industry experience is needed.
“Fox acquitted herself well as the defense secretary’s lead program analyst, but the deputy secretary’s job is mainly a management position,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, also an industry consultant. “It is, in effect, the chief operating officer for the government’s most complex department.
“With the debacle of HealthCare.gov still very much in the public’s mind, the White House needs to find a proven manager for the Pentagon’s No. 2 role,” Thompson said. “That probably means somebody from industry who has a proven ability to run large operations.”