Here’s What Hagel’s Resignation Says About the Obama Administration

Source: Mark Wilson/Getty News Images

Source: Mark Wilson/Getty News Images

So today is a celebration of a quintessentially American life — a man from the heartland who devoted his life to America. Just imagine, in your mind’s eye, the defining moments of his life. The kid from Nebraska who … volunteered to go to Vietnam. The soldier outside Saigon, rushing to pull his own brother from a burning APC. The deputy at the VA who stood up for his fellow Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange. The senator who helped lead the fight for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, to give this generation of heroes the same opportunities that he had.

I asked Chuck to lead this department at a moment of profound transition.  And today we express our gratitude for the progress under his watch.  After more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over, and America’s longest war has come to a responsible and honorable end.  Because of Chuck’s direction, a strategic review has made difficult choices in a time of tight budgets, while still making sure that our forces are ready to be called on for any contingency.

— President Barack Obama, at the Farewell Tribute in honor of Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, January

The White House announced in November the resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the only former enlisted combat soldier to ever serve in that post, describing his departure as a mutual decision. However, his departure coincides with an extended period of tension between the Defense Secretary and the White House, leading many political experts to say he was “forced out” by the Obama administration. Senior defense officials told NBC News that he was forced to step down. With his resignation, the obvious conclusion is that the Obama administration had decided he was not the right person to guide the United States Defense Department as the fight against the terrorist group ISIL continues. And while that may be true, the reality is more complex. Hagel’s departure has much to do with the changing nature of the Obama administration’s foreign policy concerns and the insular nature of the Obama White House. Still, his resignation was not expected.

Why did Obama even choose Hagel?

In his Monday morning speech, the president called Hagel an “exemplary” Defense secretary, noting he was critical to a number of the White House’s recent national security accomplishments. In his own statement sent to the Department of Defense, Hagel called his tenure “the greatest privilege” of his life. “I am immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished during this time,” he said. “We have prepared ourselves, as the president has noted, our allies and Afghan National Security Forces for a successful transition in Afghanistan. We’ve bolstered enduring alliances and strengthened emerging partnerships, while successfully responding to crises around the world.” And his words echoed the same sentiment as Obama’s own statement; a chapter in the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda has come to a close.

When Hagel was confirmed in February 2013, it was expected he would serve for the entirety of Obama’s second term. Hagel — the only Republican on the administration’s national security team — was chosen to helm the Defense Department because his politics and his commitment to ending the Iraq War resonated with Obama when both men were senators, serving together on the Foreign Relations Committee. And the Obama administration planned that Hagel would play a key role in withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and shrinking the Pentagon budget in the wake of the sequestration cuts. And he has done so.

But during confirmation hearings, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican, urged President Barack Obama to chose a different nominee. And Texas Senator John Cornyn, also a Republican, worried he was not the right man for the job. “This isn’t about personality. This isn’t about politics. … He is the wrong man for the job,” he said.

And while Hagel was confirmed by a vote of 58 to 41, there was a lingering feeling he was “ill-suited to such a politically sensitive job,” as Lexington Institute analyst Loren Thompson told Bloomberg, even though “on paper, Hagel looked perfect for the job — a war hero, a former Senator, a successful entrepreneur.”

What went wrong?

As both the president’s principal defense policy adviser and the second-in-command of the U.S. military, the U.S. Secretary of Defense serves as a liaison between the Pentagon and the White House. But Hagel struggled in that role. Obama insiders paint him as largely quiet in cabinet meetings. His supporters claim he preferred to air his opinions to the president in private, so as to avoid leaks. But it is also true that Hagel never was accepted by Obama’s inner circle of advisers after his tough confirmation hearing, when his seemingly hesitant responses to tough questioning sparked criticism. White House aides with less experience in military affairs than the wounded Vietnam War veteran often ignored what he said,” defense officials told Bloomberg.

Despite being the public face of the Defense Department, Secretary of State John Kerry outshone Hagel on foreign relation issues, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey carried more weight at the Pentagon. Partly, that is because of his difficulties communicating. “Hagel has often had problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner, and has sometimes left reporters struggling to describe what he has said in news conferences,” reported The New York Times.

Hagel’s critics also point to the numerous foreign policy crises dotting the Obama administration’s agenda as proof of his failings. That the Taliban still has too much power to be forced to sign a peace agreement; that Egypt’s former defense minister Abdel Fatah el-Sisi staged a coup and disposed of the nation’s first democratically elected president; and that a coherent strategy to fight ISIL in Syria remains illusive are all failures of foreign policy, and of course, Hagel is a participant in those failings. Although it should be noted that problems in Afghanistan predated his tenure.

Obama’s foreign policy problems

While Hagel suffered from his own limitations, the mistakes of the Obama White House are greater than choosing the wrong Secretary of Defense. Because Obama has largely insisted that foreign policy be decided by the White House, often bypassing the Pentagon and the State Department, he largely curtailed Hagel’s ability to set foreign policy. And Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, told a local radio station that Hagel had been frustrated with the Obama administration. “They’re gonna say well it was time for a change and all that…but I can tell you he was in my office last week, he was very frustrated” with a lack of strategy to combat ISIS, help the Ukrainians and what the Senator called “a lack of U.S. influence…unknown in history.” McCain told KFYI 550 that even though government officials have leaked that the Defense Secretary “wasn’t up to the job,” McCain believes the issue was with the White House itself. Or as Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf wrote, “getting rid of Hagel is not a cure for what ails Obama’s national security team — it’s a symptom of the disease.” In his opinion, that disease is Obama’s leadership style, which has been characterized by “false starts, half-measures, and micromanagement.”

Tensions between Hagel and the White House rose alongside ISIL. Where Obama initially referred to ISIL as a junior varsity terrorist organization, the Defense Secretary described the Islamic State as an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Obama administration officials later said his comments were unhelpful. And from that response, it is clear comments such as those further isolated him from the White House. More to the point, the Obama administration is in the midst of a paradigm shift in its foreign policy. The rise of ISIL has required new direction and strategy, and therefore a defense secretary capable of such tasks. “Hagel lacked the national security bureaucratic know-how and leadership of either Bob Gates or Leon Panetta, the much stronger pair who served the president in the Pentagon during his first term in office,” noted Rothkopf. And Hagel was hired to oversee the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, not mire the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict.

Plus, The Nation argued there is an important subtext to his resignation: The United States will expand its mission in Afghanistan next year; troops will be put in direct combat with the Taliban, according to a Saturday report from The Times, reversing Obama’s May announcement that U.S.troops would only be training and advising local troops.

At one time Hagel’s politics were appealing to Obama and matched the president’s own views. Hagel was willing to challenge his own party, and while he voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, he subsequently expressed his concerns regarding Bush administration strategies. For example, at a 2007 Foreign Relations Committee hearing, he described the war as a “ping-pong game with American lives.” Both his political independence and views on the use of military force fit with the Obama administration’s objectives at that time. Just ahead of his confirmation, Time magazine noted, “Hagel’s appointment signals the end of 20 years of interventions that began with Somalia and ended with Iraq and, very soon, Afghanistan,” and that was just the legacy Obama was hoping to leave.

Yet, the continued problems in the Middle East prompted a new outlook. Of course, it is equally important to consider that with foreign policy objectives shifting from the Obama’s administration’s earlier goals, Hagel was in the position to be a scapegoat. And his departure from Obama’s cabinet suggests the White House is anxious to show that criticism of the administration’s foreign policy blunders has been heard.


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