On a congressional delegation to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 as a Senate aide, Mark Lippert could not predict his traveling companions would one day run the free world.
Lippert, who served as then-Sen. Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser, is widely known to have become one of his closest confidants as president; he advised the Illinois Democrat’s presidential campaign and later became his National Security Council chief of staff.
Now Lippert is the Pentagon’s chief of staff—and his relationship with his current boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, actually predates his storied relationship with the president. A former professional staff member on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Lippert got to know the former moderate Nebraska Republican senator because he was close friends and collaborators with subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on many foreign policy issues.
That now-famous CODEL bonded Obama, whose presidential campaign that year was partly dedicated to ending the Iraq war, and his Foreign Relations Committee colleague Hagel, an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war. Throughout the intense trip, Lippert was by their sides. “It was very tight quarters,” Lippert tells National Journal Daily.
Could he have predicted Vietnam vet Hagel would be at the Pentagon’s helm and his former boss Obama running the White House? “If I could have foreseen that I would be a very rich man,” Lippert laughs. “I’d be in stock picking, not government—I’d be a derivatives trader if I could see things like that.” (That trip featured many faces now familiar to defense watchers under Obama’s administration: Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island; Liz King, who became assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs; Tony Blinken, currently deputy national security adviser, and Rexon Ryu, now deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations.) “That was a very intense and important trip.”
As chief of staff for Secretary Hagel, sitting just feet away from his cavernous Pentagon office, Lippert is effectively his gatekeeper for all important matters.
He juggles two main missions: “being the fireman” for breaking security issues while helping develop longer-term strategic national security policies. “It’s a very difficult challenge, because the issues of the day, if you’re not careful, will easily overrun the strategic,” Lippert says, “and that’s the balance you have to make.”
Lippert is also charged with ensuring Hagel’s writ is carried out, serving as a conduit between the secretary and other senior defense officials in the building. “They’re constantly asking you, ‘Hey, what does the secretary think about X, Y, or Z?’ ” he says.
Lippert insists he was not actively looking to leave his previous role as assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. It was a tough one to get: It took several months for the Senate to confirm Lippert to that position, after two holds were eventually lifted from his nomination. (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had questions about Lippert’s alleged infighting with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the NSC, as Bob Woodward described in Obama’s Wars, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was pressing the U.S. to sell Taiwan jets.) But Hagel’s request won him over, and Lippert’s new position was announced in mid-April. “What [Hagel] said was, ‘This is such a challenging, such an important time in this country.… I need someone on my team to help me to do the chief of staff role, to fill out the ranks in my front office.’ ”
Lippert has a master’s degree in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, where he was an undergrad, and he studied Mandarin Chinese at Beijing University.
Like his boss, Hagel, Lippert also has military experience. He served as an intelligence officer for Naval Special Operations Forces and has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Serving in the military “gives you a deeper appreciation … that at the end of the day, what this place has to be about is the mission,” Lippert says.
“That there are guys on the tip of the spear, that’s the priority, getting those guys what they need to do their jobs. Being a lieutenant junior grade in Iraq or a lieutenant in Afghanistan, I think you can appreciate, you sort of appreciate the very junior tactical level guys and the implications and issues that arise from the strategic choices—that they have tactical consequences.”