Why Hagel got the boot

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President Obama speaks during the resignation announcement of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, left.
President Obama speaks during the resignation announcement of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, left.

While the news media were still processing the country’s reactions to President Barack Obama’s executive action to block deportation of an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants and the failure of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran to a achieve a final agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation that same day came as yet another shock.

Despite a range of speculation as to why Hagel chose to resign – whether it was his choice or the president’s – most observers believe that it came as a result of a irreconcilable differences about the administration’s handling of tensions in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.


“What I understand from inside sources in the Pentagon was that Hagel was very forceful with the president, wanting to put boots on the ground in Iraq, and the Iranians said, ‘No way,’ ” said Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in a phone interview with Washington Jewish Week. “And the president didn’t want to cross the Iranians on that, so it led to a break between the two of them on these issues.”

Although WJW couldn’t independently confirm Iran’s role in disputes between the White House and the Pentagon, the senator’s statement conforms to other reports about Hagel’s discomfort at being a cog in the administration’s foreign policy, which he felt lacked a defining strategy.

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According to The New York Times, Hagel authored a memo to Susan Rice, senior national security adviser, in late October, outlining some of his complaints.

Citing this memo, Politico Magazine wrote that “[a]t the heart of the Rice memo was Hagel’s concern that the administration’s failure to state its intentions toward [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad would undermine and unravel its entire Syria policy.


“Hagel was also uncomfortable with the administration’s insistence that it wouldn’t send ground troops back to Iraq. He thought that closed off an important option for the United States in case the ISIL threat grew. It’s not that Hagel necessarily endorsed sending U.S. troops to fight ISIL—but, he thought, why limit one’s options?”

The article quoted a senior military officer saying that the memo “was the beginning of the end for Chuck.”

Kirk’s statement is “consistent in the sense that the White House was micromanaging the Pentagon in a wide variety of ways, yet that is not news. The Obama White House has done that since Day 1 in Jan. 2009,” said retired U.S. Navy Commander J.D. Gordon, the Pentagon’s spokesman under President George W. Bush and a current Republican political consultant. “What is most different today is the Democrats were trounced in the midterms, and Hagel was thrown under the bus as a symbol of President Obama’s failed foreign policy and national security.

“Many political appointees within the Obama administration have well-deserved reputations as know-it-all, far-left ideologues,”  Gordon added. “They are generally not interested in hearing other ideas that don’t suit their worldviews.

“For example, I was a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 to 2009, including for the first nine months of the Obama administration. During the Bush administration, I had been invited over to the White House on numerous occasions to participate in meetings to help shape and articulate U.S. policy.

During the Obama administration, I was not invited one time, and it appeared obvious that the new White House staff didn’t really care what I thought. Communication with the Obama staffers was more like a one-way street. They were more interested in having ‘yes men’ around, which is why Secretary Hagel was picked in the first place.”

Another retired Navy admiral and longtime Pentagon staffer with knowledge of the relationship between the White House and the Department of Defense agreed with Gordon’s claims of micromanagement and the reason Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who saw combat as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, was picked for the job in the first place.

“I don’t think he’s a bright man to start with; he’s never been considered an intellectual to begin with. In his confirmation hearings, incredibly he didn’t think that a Cabinet secretary had a policy role,” he said, asking not to be named. “I think he was forced out, and it’s part and parcel of the White House underestimating him. For X amount of time, the White House has tried to run the Pentagon out of the White House, and my personal opinion is they thought that Hagel would be a figurehead – weak and easy – and he finally got sick of it.

“So he wasn’t doing their bidding the way they wanted it done and so they forced him out, and I guess he wasn’t quite as weak and malleable as they thought he was.”

The retired admiral pointed out that former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both resigned and later criticized the administration’s handling of the Defense Department through the National Security Advisory Council. That council is largely made up of political operatives with little national security background who, some say, rarely listen to advice from the DOD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I think this is a continuation of an effort [by the administration] to have weak, malleable people [heading the DOD], and that’s why you’re working on your fourth secretary of defense,” he continued.

“The lack of policy, clarity, direction and follow-through in the Middle East; the constant whatever the flavor of the month is, wherever the wind is blowing,” he said. “We’re pivoting toward Asia, and then we do nothing in Asia. We’re gapping carrier coverage in Asia even though that’s where we’re pivoting toward.”

Apart from the issue of White House interference, Hagel also had a much harder job than both Gates and Panetta. Escalation and Syria; the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL); Russia’s hostilities in Ukraine; negotiating a military withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the Israeli military action in Gaza – all that took place on a budget deeply impacted by sequestration, which led to severe cuts that Hagel was forced to navigate.

A senior staffer at a Washington, D.C.-based pro-Israel and foreign policy organization, not authorized to speak on the record, said that the conflict between Hagel and the administration stemmed from the different realities faced by other Cabinet members, and that these differences in approach muddled the foreign policy direction of the United States.

“The Defense Department sees [the problems with American foreign policy], it’s the State Department that doesn’t see it,” continued the staffer. “And the reason for that is because when you indulge in fantasies as a diplomat, well the consequences aren’t that bad, but when you indulge in fantasies as a soldier, then the consequences get really bad really fast.”

The day Hagel’s resignation was announced, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Hagel held a joint press conference – a formality meant to suggest that Hagel’s departure was simply a normal part of the transition into administration’s final two years and not the result of poor performance.

“Now last month, Chuck came to me to discuss the final quarter of my presidency and determined that having guided the department through this transition, it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service,” Obama said. “When I nominated you for this position, you said that you’d always give me your honest advice and informed counsel. You have. When it’s mattered most – behind closed doors, in the Oval Office – you’ve always given it to me straight. And for that I will always be grateful.”

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@dmitriyshapiro

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