Chuck Checks Out: Hagel Fails to Adapt to Obama's Controlling White House


This morning's news cycle has temporarily shifted away from fretting about what might happen in Ferguson, Missouri, to the news that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is resigning after serving less than two years. The New York Times got the news, which will apparently be announced formally in a statement this morning:

The officials described Mr. Obama's decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.

But now "the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus," one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He insisted that Mr. Hagel was not fired, saying that he initiated discussions about his future two weeks ago with the president, and that the two men mutually agreed that it was time for him to leave.

But Mr. Hagel's aides had maintained in recent weeks that he expected to serve the full four years as defense secretary. His removal appears to be an effort by the White House to show that it is sensitive to critics who have pointed to stumbles in the government's early response to several national security issues, including the Ebola crisis and the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Well, that's one way to put it, but later on in the story, reporter Helen Cooper notes Hagel's struggles to fit in with a White House full of intense Obama campaign insiders and their need to control all messaging:

A respected former senator who struck a friendship with Mr. Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq war from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Hagel has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Mr. Obama's closely knit set of loyalists. Senior administration officials have characterized him as quiet during Cabinet meetings; Mr. Hagel's defenders said that he waited until he was alone with the president before sharing his views, the better to avoid leaks.

Whatever the case, Mr. Hagel struggled to fit in with Mr. Obama's close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration after a bruising confirmation fight among his old Senate colleagues, during which he was criticized for seeming tentative in his responses to sharp questions.

Jerry Tuccille noted how Hagel's leadership played out early in 2013 in regards to fears of chemical weapon use in Syria. One day in April Hagel publicly stated there was no evidence Syria's government was using chemical weapons on its own citizens. Then he reversed position the very next day, saying that it likely that they had. The Times notes that Hagel also contradicted the White House in descriptions of ISIS. The president had compared the terrorist group to a JV basketball team, while Hagel described them as an "imminent threat to everything we have." A gap that wide does indicate, though, issues bigger than just messaging. The administration chose extremely poorly with that metaphor, but certainly Hagel is exaggerating about the actual threat ISIS represents.

One of the top choices to replace Hagel is Michéle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense under Hagel's predecessors. She's also an administration insider. She was part of Obama's transition team, and when she stepped down from her work within the administration in 2011, said she was going to work on helping Obama get re-elected in 2012. Her name had been bounced around at the same time as Hagel's in 2012 as a possible replacement for Leon Panetta.   

Flournoy is also a co-founder and CEO of a non-profit military/national security focused think tank named the Center for New American Security. She seems to think it's possible for America to "achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan" as long as we stay committed with money and resources. Read her report here, and then read some of examples of where money sent to Afghanistan is actually going here.

The progressive anti-war group Institute for Policy Studies describes Flournoy's love of military intervention and spending from the left here. They note she actually has more support from neoconservatives than Republican Hagel, vocal critic of the Iraq war. Rather than proposing a different course for the administration's foreign policy, she appears to possibly be the person to entrench it for rest of Obama's term.

Now seems a good time to mention January's issue of Reason magazine focuses on what a realistic libertarian foreign policy should look like and includes interviews with both Ron Paul and Rand Paul.