Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, D.C. is all a twitter with news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been fired, er, asked to step down, er, initiated talks about leaving. It has long been a staple of Washington news reporting (read, gossip) that Hagel simply wasn’t up to the job, either intellectually or physically. Seeing him at various events in person, he looked perpetually exhausted and distant, while damning rumors of his lack of attention to the job could be heard in numerous corners. One high-level source with direct knowledge once told me that Hagel was disengaged in his morning briefings, and when thick briefing papers were presented to him, he would thumb through them and push them aside, reportedly saying things like, “I can’t read this, just tell me what it says.” Those who watched carefully his underwhelming Senate confirmation hearings knew that this was not a good choice for one of the most demanding jobs in government…
Thus, at a time of extraordinary global danger, America was saddled with a defense secretary not respected by his president, not expected to bring a sharp intellectual scalpel to the challenges of the day, and one who simply wasn’t up for the job. Early, private reports from inside the Pentagon indicate a sigh of relief, since the thought is it can’t get any worse.
“Make no mistake, Secretary Hagel was fired,” a senior U.S. official with close knowledge of the situation told Fox News.
This same official discounted Pentagon claims it was a mutual decision claiming President Obama has lost confidence in Hagel and that the White House had been planning to announce his exit for weeks.
“The president felt he had to fire someone. He fired the only Republican in his cabinet. Who is that going to piss off that he cares about?”
In a swipe at the resume of Hagel, who served as U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam and received two Purple Hearts, the official added, “This is why you don’t send a sergeant to do a secretary’s job.”
Those officials said the White House lost confidence in the former Nebraska senator to carry out his role at the Pentagon.
According to one senior official, “He wasn’t up to the job.”…
Multiple sources also said that Hagel was originally brought to the job to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as the fight against the Islamic State ramped up, he was not as well matched for the post.
“Rather than winding down two wars, we’re winding up,” said one source close to Hagel and top Pentagon officials.
John McCain wasn’t going to let the administration get away with its spin. Early Monday morning, before daylight in Arizona, Helene Cooper reported that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would be stepping down, and that he was pushed. In a morning interview with NewsTalk 550, McCain struck back at the idea that Hagel was incompetent, or that he was the problem with the administration.
“I just talked to him,” said McCain. “They’re gonna say, well, it was time for a change. Well, let me tell you. He was in my office last week. He was very frustrated. We have no strategy.”
The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee ticked off the crisis regions around the globe, from the ISIS-occupied sections of the Levant to China, and reiterated that Hagel was a good man who could not fix an Obama policy that was blundering and making the country weaker.
“Believe me,” said McCain, “he was up to the job.”
So Chuck Hagel has been fired as defense secretary. We were critical of his appointment, and opposed his confirmation by the Senate. But let’s be clear: Hagel has done what he was asked and what was expected of him at the Pentagon. To the degree he has deviated from the Obama White House line, he’s been more right than wrong (e.g., on the threat the Islamic State poses).
So why has he been fired? Because the Obama White House needs a scapegoat. President George W, Bush fired Don Rumsfeld in connection with a change in strategy (the surge) and to bring in someone of independent stature. That’s not the case today. President Obama continues to want a Pentagon with weak leadership and little independence. There’s therefore no reason to expect the next two years of Obama foreign and defense policy to be any better than the past two.
1. On Sunday, reports first began that a deal with Iran over its nuclear program would not be reached and the talks would likely be extended. On Monday morning, the extension is confirmed around 8 a.m…
3. Just after 9 a.m., the New York Times reports that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will resign…
6. Obama and Hagel speak on time at 11:10.
7. And Kerry comes on right after just before 11:30.
One of the enduring narratives of the Obama administration is that of a so-called Team of Rivals presidential Cabinet — the idea that the best and brightest would be brought in (and listened to) whether or not they were part of Obama’s campaign inner circle. But Chuck Hagel’s “resignation” as defense secretary is the latest sign that the Team of Rivals idea is effectively over — if it ever really existed in the first place…
[A]s Obama’s presidency wore on — and he won a second term — he almost abandoned the idea of surrounding himself with people who actively disagreed with him. In fact, the decisions to nominate Hagel at the Pentagon, John Brennan at the CIA, John Kerry at the State Department and Jack Lew at Treasury at the start of his second term were widely considered evidence of the president’s belief that he needed loyalists around him as he sought to build a second-term legacy…
[R]emember that one of the key arguments Obama made when campaigning in 2008 was that he represented a break from the sort of buddy-buddy government management style that Bush symbolized for many Americans. The very idea of the Team of Rivals concept grew out of Obama’s campaign promises to run a meritocracy in direct contrast to how he saw the Bush White House run.
The arc of Obama’s presidency when it comes to who he listens to most, however, appears to be not all that dissimilar from the one he rose to prominence critiquing.
Hagel was as much of a victim of the White House’s contradictory military policies as of his own weaknesses. Last week’s report that the Pentagon will have a far more active role in Afghanistan next year than had been planned — including stepped-up use of ground troops, jets, drones and night missions — was a manifestation of a tension that is threatening to overwhelm Barack Obama’s foreign policy in the last two years of his presidency: how to fight Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq while also fulfilling his vow to end both wars…
In the Obama administration, military and national-security strategy has increasingly been set by a group of presidential confidantes in the White House and National Security Council. There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of concentration of decision-making; the important thing is getting the strategy right.
The question is whether, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has the strategy right. One answer is no, because it has failed to resolve the inconsistency between its strategic and political goals. And another answer might as well be no, because it has failed so spectacularly in elucidating its goals to begin with.
Intoxicated by the symbolic significance of a Hagel appointment, both his defenders and his adversaries tended to overlook one mundane but crucial fact: That in the ultra-centralized Obama White House, Hagel’s foreign-policy views wouldn’t matter all that much. Robert Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary, has complained, “It’s in the increasing desire of the White House to control and manage every aspect of military affairs.” Leon Panetta, who succeeded him, recently added that, “Because of that centralization of authority at the White House, there are too few voices that are being heard.”
Gates and Hillary Clinton managed to wield some influence nonetheless, because they locked arms on key issues and because their public statures made them virtually unfireable. But there was never much chance that Hagel could do the same. Unlike Gates and Clinton, he had no outside power base. To the contrary, he was widely disliked by his former Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill. Unlike Gates and Clinton, he had no experience manipulating the bureaucracy of government. And finally, as his confirmation hearings made clear, he was a painfully poor public communicator.
Most of the debate over Hagel’s confirmation focused on his foreign-policy beliefs. But even back then, it was pretty clear that he was being hired not to rethink Obama’s foreign policy but to execute it. And there was reason to suspect he wouldn’t execute it very well.
To some extent, though, you can’t totally blame Hagel: Obama has insisted on setting foreign policy within the White House, which means excluding agencies like the Pentagon and the State Department. That policy has largely failed (look at the struggling efforts with ISIS and Russia’s Ukraine invasion), and now Obama appears to be pinning the failure on Hagel — which is not going to fix the problem, given that Obama had already neutered Hagel’s ability to set and shape foreign policy.
What’s telling about all of this is that there’s been speculation for a couple of months that, after the midterm elections, the Obama administration would fire some lead foreign policy people to try to fix the problems. But everyone thought he would fire someone who works in the White House, such as National Security Advisor Susan Rice, because Obama has forced all foreign policy-making to happen within the White House. Instead he’s fired someone outside of the White House, which suggests that Obama is going to keep the White House foreign policy team that is actually leading things, and that is more culpable for the failures.
Hagel’s alienation, the tension between him and the White House, and the military leadership’s burgeoning frustration with the false starts, half-measures, and micromanagement that have marked the administration’s Iraq and Syria campaigns are signs of much deeper problems that lie within the way the president himself operates and, from a process perspective, from the way that his National Security Council (NSC) operates.
At a moment when most second-term presidents have long since bid adieu to their campaign staffers and have focused on governing, Obama is drawing his closer, providing him more of a security blanket than an effective national security team. Susan Rice, his national security advisor, was passenger No. 1 on the Obama campaign’s national security team, leading its efforts and working closely throughout with Denis McDonough, now Obama’s chief of staff. They have fostered throughout Obama’s time in office an “us vs. them” environment with their own colleagues in the administration, beginning but hardly ending with the remnants of the Hillary Clinton for President team…
If President Obama is unwilling to ask himself how he must change in order to avoid and undo mistakes like those of the past two years, it doesn’t matter how many cabinet secretaries come or go. If the move to swap out Chuck Hagel (apparently after a rather contentious tug of war about whether he should depart) is as it appears to be — a gesture designed to avoid addressing the real problems within the Obama team — then it is worse than empty. It is a further sign that this is a president resistant to growth or to finding a way to effectively advance the national security interests of the United States.