Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has selected Rexon Ryu as his new chief of staff, picking a former trusted aide over someone from inside the building with deep Pentagon experience, Foreign Policy has learned.
Ryu, who was U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Samantha Power’s deputy, worked for Hagel during his Senate days. Ryu starts in the Defense secretary’s front office later this week, fully taking over for Chief of Staff Mark Lippert by Labor Day. In picking Ryu, Hagel chose someone with whom he has a close bond, even if it may take Ryu, who doesn't have Pentagon experience, some time to navigate the Pentagon’s massive bureaucracy.
Ryu was one of three known candidates to replace Lippert, whose nomination to become ambassador to South Korea is pending in the Senate. When Leon Panetta was Defense secretary, he brought Jeremy Bash with him from the CIA to be his top staffer. Bash didn't necessarily know the Pentagon but his relationship with his boss was seen as the key to his success. Robert Gates, on the other hand, chose Robert Rangel, a Defense Department veteran with whom he had no personal ties. Hagel is clearly settling on someone he knows and trusts.
This will be Hagel’s third chief of staff in 18 months: Marcel Lettre was Hagel’s first right-hand man but only served briefly and in an acting capacity until Hagel picked Lippert, an Asia policy expert with close ties to President Barack Obama. But it is Ryu's long relationship with Hagel -- he was a Hagel Senate aide for nearly a decade -- that is considered one of his biggest strengths.
"Rexon is a great choice," said John Lettieri, who was Ryu's Senate deputy and who called him an "outstanding human being" in an email to FP. Ryu is "deeply familiar" with interagency and national security processes and players, Lettieri said. "He knows the Hill, and most importantly, he understands the way the secretary thinks and meshes well with his leadership style…. He's one of the few people who can hit the ground running in this position."
As a manager, Ryu is known for playing it straight. “He establishes clear expectations and sets the tone with a relentless work ethic,” Lettieri said. “People trust him as a professional -- there's no gamesmanship.”
Between 2009 and 2010, Ryu was director of the National Security Council’s nonproliferation section. He focused on Asia and the Middle East, and North Korea and Iran in particular, according to his bio. He led Susan Rice’s confirmation team when she was nominated as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; and between 2005 and 2009, Ryu was Hagel’s deputy chief of staff and senior foreign-policy advisor. Before that, he held various positions at the State Department, including postings in Cairo and Jerusalem. He also worked for Richard Armitage when he was deputy secretary of state.
"I am greatly looking forward to having Rexon Ryu back on my senior leadership team. He is a proven talent when it comes to working with the interagency, Congress, and outside groups and he will be a tremendous asset to the Defense Department," Hagel said in a statement to FP, noting that he recruited Ryu for some time. "[I] have long relied on his counsel and wise perspective on national security matters."
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns also spoke highly of Ryu.
“Rexon is one of the smartest and most promising public servants of his generation," Burns said in an email to FP, noting that Ryu is "remarkably versatile" given his Hill, State Department, National Security Council, and U.N. experiences. "He has excellent policy judgment, and is universally respected for both his professional skill and personal decency," Burns wrote.
Wendy Anderson and Elissa Slotkin were also in the running to lead Hagel’s staff. Anderson, who was chief of staff for Ash Carter when he was deputy defense secretary and worked in Hagel's front office, was considered the frontrunner. But Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker plucked Anderson from the Pentagon to be her chief of staff. Slotkin, meanwhile, whose formal title is "performing the duties of the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy," is seen as more of a policy expert. She is now the leading candidate to replace Derek Chollet as assistant secretary of defense for international affairs, a key policy job within the Pentagon. Chollet departs that post in January, as FP previously reported.
The transition could start this week, as Lippert is presumably moving to Habib House in Seoul. The Senate hasn’t signed off on his ambassadorship but is expected to this fall. Although he’s never worked in the building, Ryu steps into the Pentagon already knowing people like the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office’s Jamie Morin, the Pentagon policy shop’s Brian McKeon, and Comptroller Mike McCord.
A senior defense official tells FP that Ryu will focus on obvious issue "buckets" such as the Islamic State, Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea, as well as budget and other Veterans Affairs Department-related matters. The Defense Department’s ongoing effort to digitize its health records of military personnel will also be on his plate. And the Asia pivot is still a key priority for Hagel.
"He wants to continue to play a leadership role in the pivot," a senior defense official told FP.
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