Barack Obama will hold a press conference later today to announce that Chuck Hagel has resigned as Secretary of Defense. According to the New York Times, his departure is not entirely voluntary, either, although their source claims he wasn’t exactly fired:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and a beleaguered national security team that has struggled to stay ahead of an onslaught of global crises.
The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said.
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.
That doesn’t sound like a mutual agreement. Making the point that Hagel isn’t a wartime SecDef to the media makes it sound very much like this was a demand for a resignation. That’s what “Mr. Obama’s decison to remove Mr. Hagel” means — Obama canned him. It’s a little silly to pretend otherwise.
With that said, why now? The White House has been fumbling on ISIS and Afghanistan for months now, if not during Hagel’s entire tenure. Obama denied that ISIS was a threat and kept insisting that the US would pull out of Afghanistan on schedule. Only in the last few weeks has that posture changed, and it’s far from clear that Hagel was the problem in either case. Hagel’s Defense Intelligence group had been warning Congress and Obama since January of the grave danger ISIS posed, and it was the military that wanted a broader mission in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
Josh Rogin’s take seems pretty accurate in this regard:
The White House threw Hagel under the bus then ran over him with the bus and then backed up and ran over him again. http://t.co/N1AhZl99j9
— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) November 24, 2014
Still, this is what happens with Cabinet Secretaries when policies go bad. Presidents ditch them as a signal for a shift in direction. In this case, it’s more than fitting, because Hagel was appointed by Obama as Republican cover for his unwillingness to maintain a forward strategy against radical Islamist terror networks. Hagel had long opposed the Iraq war from the ranks of the Senate Republican caucus, and lent Obama some cheap credit on bipartisanship without challenging him on policy in the least. Hagel had next to no qualifications to lead the massive Defense Department, and despite getting ISIS right has not exactly impressed as SecDef.
Now Obama wants to shift back to some limited form of the forward strategy, with an extension in Afghanistan and likely some use of ground troops in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. Hagel’s opposition to that kind of interventionism won’t make him an asset in the new strategy, so out he goes. That’s really not a great deal different than George W. Bush replacing Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 midterms with Robert Gates. It’s just that the problem in the Bush administration was how to fight the war, while in the Obama administration it’s been the refusal to admit that there is a war going on.
The question now will be who replaces Hagel, and when. It won’t be in the lame-duck session; there isn’t enough time. That means Obama has to find a candidate who can pass muster with the new Republican majority in January, while still hewing close to Obama’s middle-of-the-road, hesitationist impulses. It’ll be interesting to see who Obama chooses, but don’t expect the GOP to block anyone who’s capable of handling the new policy. They will have lots of room to fight over Obama’s nominees, but not in national-security positions.
Addendum: Maybe this is how Obama broke it to Hagel:
Update: Yup — fired:
The officials say the White House has lost confidence in Hagel to carry out his role at the Pentagon. According to one senior official, “He wasn’t up to the job.”
Not a wartime consigliere.
Update: Joel Pollak thinks this is the price of going rogue on ISIS over the summer:
Hagel should never have been chosen for the post. He had no firm grasp of national security strategy, was weak on Iran, had a disturbing anti-Israel track record, and fumbled his confirmation hearing badly. Other nominees, including Michèle Flournoy–who would have been the first woman to hold the post–would have been better, but Obama could not pass up the chance to use a Republican as a bipartisan fig leaf to slash the Pentagon.
That said, there is no immediate or urgent failure that ought to have triggered Hagel’s departure. Until he began to “go rogue” on ISIS, he had faithfully carried out Obama’s policies. What seems likely is that the threat of ISIS became too urgent to ignore, as senior military leaders began pushing for ground troops. The real problem is in the White House, not at the Pentagon. Given that, only a greater fool than Hagel would rush to replace him.