Back in March, 2008, Barack Obama, who was running for President, was quoted as saying, “Chuck Hagel is a great friend of mine, and I respect him very much.” On Monday, Obama effectively fired Hagel from his post as Defense Secretary, which Hagel had held for less than two years. “He wasn’t up to the job,” a senior official told Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News’s veteran Pentagon correspondent.
As would be expected in the wake of such an abrupt change, the White House tried to put a more favorable spin on Hagel’s departure, suggesting that his resignation was decided mutually by him and the President—a claim that contradicts recent statements by Hagel’s aides, who said that he intended to serve a full four years, according to the Times. (Just last week, Hagel himself told CBS News’s Charlie Rose that he wasn’t worried about his job.) Appearing alongside Hagel in the State Dining Room on Monday morning, President Obama called him “an exemplary Defense Secretary,” who helped to oversee the military in a time of transition. “When it’s mattered most, behind closed doors, in the Oval Office, you’ve always given it to me straight. For that, I will always be grateful,” Obama said.
Diplomatic niceties aside, the news reports about Hagel’s departure make it pretty clear what happened. With a series of foreign-policy crises generating sharp criticisms of the Obama Administration, the President and his top aides lost faith in the former Republican Senator, and decided to ease him out. “Senior defense officials told NBC News Monday that Hagel was forced to resign,” Milazsewski reported. “Those officials said the White House lost confidence in the former Nebraska Senator to carry out his role at the Pentagon.” The Times’s report of the ouster was less barbed, but it delivered much the same message. “The next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one Administration official told the paper.
Hagel took the Pentagon post with a sterling résumé, which included two Purple Hearts, awarded for his service in Vietnam; a successful business career; and twelve years in the Senate, where he became famous as one of the few Republican critics of the Iraq war—a war he initially voted for, but gradually turned against. Despite this background, he was a strangely anonymous figure in Obama’s tight-knit Administration, which cedes little real power to Cabinet secretaries. And now, after just twenty-two months in the job, he’s gone.
Perhaps the move is a reflection of Hagel’s managerial skills and his occasional public stumbles, as some have argued. However, it also raises questions about Obama’s judgment in a number of respects: in hiring Hagel in the first place; in his Administration’s failure to foresee the series of challenges the Pentagon is now facing; and in the execution of its efforts to roll back the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Having chosen a Republican, Robert Gates, to be his first Secretary of Defense, Obama was evidently keen to hire another after his second, Leon Panetta, a veteran Democrat, decided to retire at the start of 2013. But all that Obama’s effort to use the position to transcend partisanship earned the White House was a bruising nomination battle, which ended with just four G.O.P. senators voting to confirm Hagel.
In some ways, Hagel was the President’s Republican doppelgänger: skeptical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, eager to bring home U.S. troops, and reluctant to get the United States embroiled militarily elsewhere in the Middle East. If the primary goal was to complete Obama’s agenda of disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan, then having Hagel at the Pentagon seemed to make sense. In the past year or so, though, the policy of disengagement has been superseded. Three thousand U.S. soldiers and military trainers have already been committed for deployment in Iraq to help defeat the Islamic State. And last week, the Administration confirmed that it is modifying its plan to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other extremist groups are growing in strength. According to a report in the Times, the President recently authorized the Pentagon to carry out attacks on Taliban fighters, which could include extensive air strikes in support of Afghan government forces.
There is no suggestion that Hagel opposed either of these policy changes. Indeed, he was one of the first senior U.S. officials to warn that ISIS represented a serious danger to American interests, which was said to have irked Obama’s aides at the time. According to some reports, Hagel has recently been pushing the Administration to commit more resources to Iraq, and to increase the number of strikes inside Syria. Last month, he sent a memo to Susan Rice, the National Security Adviser, “expressing concern about over-all Syria strategy,” anofficial told CNN
Did that memo precipitate Hagel’s departure? During the coming days, we’ll probably learn more about that. Whatever the case, President Obama appears to have decided that, with the U.S. stepping up its military involvement in various parts of the world, he needed a more hands-on, and on-message, figure at the Pentagon. That’s understandable. But so is the widespread skepticism about the official version of Hagel’s departure, including Republicans’ eagerness to make hay of it. “Secretary Hagel did not believe that the foreign policy is working or is going to work,” Republican congressman Peter King, of New York, told CNN.
That statement reeks of overstatement, which is typical of King. But it underscores that Obama, having just enjoyed his best few weeks as President in a long time, has just refocussed attention on an area, foreign policy, where his enemies sense vulnerability.