Charles “Chuck” Hagel, the twenty-fourth secretary of defense, resigned from his position this past Monday. His resignation was surprising for those outside the White House, but the same cannot be said for those within Obama’s inner circle of trusted advisers, despite the public statements made by Hagel and Obama on Monday evening. Hagel’s resignation comes at an interesting time, as he is the first cabinet member to step down after the midterm results, which revealed the depth of the nation’s unhappiness with foreign policy affairs. As secretary of defense, Hagel was faced with unanticipated global crises, such as a new terrorist group (ISIS) posing a direct threat to the US, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This resignation comes after Hagel spent twenty-one months trying to execute a job that entailed duties he was not expecting.
The White House reportedly didn’t think Hagel was up to the job, as he often stumbled when it came to foreign policy issues like managing the fight against ISIS, handling an emerging China, restraining Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and communicating a clear strategy to the public. Administration officials also say that Hagel didn’t seem to be part of the “in crowd” of Obama’s advisers and he “never really found his footing when he reached the Pentagon.”
Criticisms suggest that one of Hagel’s greatest failings was his inability to articulate a [clear] response to recent global security threats, specifically with the Ukraine crisis. However, National Journal staff correspondent Matt Vasilogambros, sharing his thoughts with the Gate the morning after the resignation announcement, disagrees.
“To say he wasn’t up for the job is an unfair statement. The job he was hired for is not the job he got.”
As secretary of defense, Hagel was hired to be the peacekeeper of the Pentagon by winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cutting the defense budget. Hagel accepted the position with the understanding that he would carry out these missions. However, throughout his time in office, Hagel has instead been presented with issues like military health and justice system reforms, as well as a review of nuclear weapons management.
Hagel was met with ruthless opposition to sequestration policies, “a country that has zero to no interest in Asia politics, and a new threat to the country in the form of ISIS,” said Vasilogambros.
As with any controversial situation, there are clearly two sides to this story. From the White House, the public hears a story of an amicable separation between Hagel and the administration. From the media, there is the story of Hagel’s (and past defense secretaries’) frustration with the occupational constraints he faced due to cabinet micromanagement and the manner in which the Obama administration controlled the decision-making process for national security issues. The cabinet’s micromanagement has been criticized by Hagel’s predecessors, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and Hagel’s situation was no different. Not surprisingly, micromanagement only made the job more difficult for Hagel as he struggled to address the unexpected foreign policy issues.
Hagel and Obama undoubtedly had discussions about the current state of and criticism surrounding the administration’s foreign policy. Once the solution emerged in the form of a resignation, Hagel was then able to take personal action by first writing a farewell letter, which echoed the White House narrative, and later speaking with Senator John McCain, who relayed that Hagel was “very unhappy about micromanagement from the White House and did not believe that Washington had a strategy to combat Islamic State.”
Despite their tumultuous relationship, Hagel confided in McCain regarding the details of his resignation. It is no surprise that the White House would not want to release a public statement revealing that they simply fired Hagel, as that would reflect poorly on Obama and his administration. And let’s not forget that McCain has his own disagreements with the administration, and has consistently challenged Obama on many of his views.
“If the White House really wanted a smooth transition, they wouldn’t have sent their top aides out to the press to spin the story,” said Vasilogambros. “That said, it could look kind of insulting that the White House is trying to spin it this way, then go call up their buddies at the New York Times or National Journal and tell them a different story.”
Hagel’s resignation narrative, as told by the White House, is that he and the president have been discussing this for several weeks, so Hagel agreeably stepped down “under pressure” from the cabinet. However, Hagel’s ostracization was clear even before he claimed his spot in the Pentagon. Unlike that of Hagel’s Democratic predecessor Leon Panetta, who was unanimously approved for the position in 2011, the confirmation process for Hagel was not easy. In fact, only four Republicans were in support of Hagel succeeding Panetta, which resulted in a 58–41 final vote. In an effort to maintain their amicable narrative, White House officials are not talking about the detrimental influence Hagel’s outsider status has had on his time in office and his ability to efficiently approach the issues at hand.
“His status brings about his demise—it’s almost as if he were doomed from the beginning,” Vasilogambros speculated of the influence of this outsider status on Hagel’s role as defense secretary.
Chuck Hagel accepted a cabinet position for which he was unprepared—not because of incompetence or inexperience, but rather because of an inability to deal with the micromanaging of the White House. Despite holding a position that seemingly puts one in charge of the decision-making for all national security issues, Hagel was not granted any power he anticipated before accepting the role due to the constant micromanagement from administration officials. The occupational constraints and unanticipated global crises that arose during Hagel’s term as secretary of defense represent major reasons for his seemingly sudden resignation. If history repeats itself, the confirmation process for Hagel’s successor will be a story in and of itself, and he or she will likely face a similar amount of opposition and disapproval, as well as a greater demand for a pathbreaking plan to combat ISIS.
The image featured in this article is courtesy of Chuck Hagel's Flickr page and can be found here.