Chuck Hagel has seemed the most unlikely of Defense secretaries almost from the days of his near-disastrous Senate confirmation hearings a year-and-a-half ago.
His chief credentials were his service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and his friendship with President Obama from their Senate days. But unlike his two immediate predecessors – Leon Panetta and Robert Gates – the one-time businessman was in over his depth in grasping the complexities and palace intrigues of the Defense Department. He was constantly watching as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high-ranking officials undercut him on budgetary and tactical issues.
Like many others in the defense and intelligence community, Hagel was also caught off guard by the strength of ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq – a group Obama once mistakenly dismissed as a “JV” or junior varsity terrorist operation.
So when the news broke Monday morning that Hagel, 68, was being forced out of his job, it came as only a small surprise to many in the defense community. Hagel was being fired, some media reports indicated, because the White House and the top Defense brass had lost confidence in him.
This comes at a pivotal moment for U.S. military involvement in Syria and Iraq and the president’s decision to revamp his national security team in the final two years of his term.
A short list of possible replacements almost immediately surfaced, including Michele A. Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense with strong budget skills.
Hagel will stay on until a successor is confirmed, which could take months. He’ll be a lame duck Defense Secretary until then – and whomever Obama nominates as a replacement will take office with a diminished capacity to effect change. The entrenched bureaucracy of the Pentagon would likely have little trouble waiting out a Defense secretary with such a short prospective tenure.
“I suspect this isn’t so much about policy disagreement,” said Gordon Adams, a military expert at American University. “It’s more about stewardship in the Pentagon and the ability to get the building to behave. The building, in the senior service ranks, has not been very well behaved.”
He added, “This is a huge piece of bureaucracy with a lot of problems. Even a well-educated secretary of defense takes a year or so just to find the men’s room. So for them to have appointed somebody who [was] going to spend an awful lot of time getting up to speed was a curious decision to begin with.”
Some officials said the decision in part was a recognition that the position needs a different skill set to deal more effectively with the ISIS threat, as noted in The New York Times. The former GOP senator from Nebraska often seemed to struggle to enunciate a clear viewpoint, these officials believed, and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary.
During his stormy confirmation hearings in 2013, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other former colleagues of Hagel’s challenged his qualifications for the job and questioned his judgment for opposing some sanctions against Iran and calling for direct negotiations with Iranian leaders.
On Monday, President Obama, flanked by Hagel and Vice President Joe Biden, announced Hagel’s resignation during a White House ceremony. While officials behind the scenes were plying reporters with stories of a secretary overwhelmed by the job and out of the White House loop, Obama praised Hagel as a friend and effective cabinet member who led the department through a significant transition.
“Chuck Hagel has been no ordinary Secretary of Defense,” Obama said. “As the first enlisted combat veteran to serve in that position, he understands our men and women like few others, because he stood where they stood, he’s been in the dirt and he’s been in the mud. That’s established a special bond.”
The president said that over the past two years, Hagel “provided a steady hand” as the administration has tried to extricate itself from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and modernize U.S. military strategy while facing tough fiscal choices.
“Let me just say that Chuck is and has been a great friend of mine. I’ve known him, admired him and trusted him for nearly a decade,” said Obama.
Hagel has agreed to stay on until his replacement wins confirmation next year. He said, “I believe we have set not only this department – the Department of Defense – but the nation on a stronger course towards security, stability and prosperity.”
“On paper he [Hagel] is the most qualified person ever to take that job,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan. “A decorated soldier who knows what combat is like, a two-term senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, and a successful businessman. Nobody else had all that.”
The trouble, said Korb, was that he arrived at a Pentagon in disarray. “He gets over to the building and inherits a program and a budget that pretends sequestration won’t happen. Then he’s got to deal with a White House that was burned by the ‘team of rivals’ in the first administration, so they’re taking more control. Finally, he tries to work with Congress to bring the budget down, and they won’t work with him.”
Korb calls the criticism that Hagel was not up to the job “nonsense. What did he get wrong? He came up with budget plans that made sense, and in terms of when he testified before Congress, he was caught between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president.”
Korb added, “What people will remember is a guy who got trashed in a confirmation hearing and went on to do a good job. He’s got the budget under control, he’s been able to get the president to change course on both Afghanistan and Iraq. Don’t forget, he spent a lot of time [talking to U.S. allies] in Asia.”
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