Chuck Hagel’s resignation: strategic pivot or sacrificial lamb?

James Kitfield
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) walks down the steps of the Pentagon on November 24, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia. Earlier in the day U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he accepted Hagel's resignation. Hagel plans to remain in office until his successor is confirmed by the US Senate. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When presidents ditch their defense alter egos, it’s usually to send a loud message. So it was with the resignations of former Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara, both casualties of blatant wartime mismanagement in Iraq and Vietnam, respectively. Similarly, Les Aspin was terminated from the job after fumbling U.S. military operations in Somalia, and for general managerial incompetence. In each case, the presidents accepting the resignations of their top military official hoped to signal a change of course from what was widely viewed as a failed strategy.

President Barack Obama’s acceptance yesterday of the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left little doubt that the administration also wants to turn a page on a foreign and national security policy mired in crisis and controversy. Critics have focused on the administration’s slow response to the escalating threat from the so-called Islamic State (IS) and from its faltering nuclear negotiations with Iran; its halting reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine and a threatened Ebola pandemic in Africa; and questions surrounding a still unfinished war in Afghanistan. Polls suggest those criticisms have become an increasing drag on Obama’s popularity, and have contributed to historic Republican gains in the recent midterm elections.

Less clear is the internal role that Hagel played in each of those crises, and what policy change the White House hopes to telegraph by pressuring him to resign. For instance, White House officials were reportedly annoyed at Hagel’s comments in August that the IS was an “imminent threat” and “beyond anything we have seen,” which contradicted Obama’s statements months earlier equating the terrorist group with a “junior varsity” basketball team. Yet a summer offensive by the IS that quickly rolled up nearly a third of Iraq rendered that characterization outdated, and the administration’s subsequent effort targeting the Islamic State, which included the recent doubling of the number of U.S. military advisers and trainers deployed to Iraq, suggest that Hagel had it about right.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel leaves after testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Senators questioned Hagel and and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey about the threat posed by the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

During Obama's second term, White House officials have also continued to concentrate responsibility for decision-making on major foreign and domestic issues within a tight circle of advisers and former campaign aides surrounding the president. Hagel was apparently unable to crack that tightly knit team and to make himself clearly heard on major issues, but in that, he surely had lots of company in Obama’s Cabinet. The more important question is whether his resignation signals a change from that insular approach, and the tentative and reactive foreign and national security policies it has produced. The alternative is that Hagel has been sacrificed on the altar of symbolism, signifying very little of substance. “I find it surprising that with only two years left and Congress in control of a hostile Republican Party, in the midst of trying to draw down one war and ramp up another, the White House would fix its ire on Chuck Hagel as the cause of a flip-flopping foreign policy,” said retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Even as a Republican, Hagel had shown deep loyalty to Obama since endorsing him for president in 2008 over Hagel’s friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. As a previously wounded noncommissioned officer, he also had a special rapport with the uniformed rank and file during an era of painful defense budget cuts. “Instead of jettisoning someone of Hagel’s stature, the White House team should have looked inward at their own ineffective micro-management of foreign and defense policy, and realized you cannot manage a globe-spanning military of over 2 million men and women out of [National Security Adviser] Susan Rice’s office.”

As a decorated combat veteran, successful businessman and former two-term senator, Hagel arguably had the most impressive résumé of any modern Secretary of Defense. However, during his Senate confirmation hearings early in 2013, shortly after Obama’s re-election, Hagel seemed taken aback and wholly unprepared for the intense and in some cases vitriolic grilling he received from former colleagues, especially fellow Republicans. Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, went so far as to suggest Hagel may have accepted money from the North Koreans, offering no evidence.

Then U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (C) shares a laugh with U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) (2nd L) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) (2nd R) at the Amman Citadel in Amman July 22, 2008. (Jim Young/REUTERS)

Though the Senate Armed Services Committee narrowly approved Hagel’s nomination, and a first-ever Republican filibuster of a defense secretary nomination was eventually overcome, some observers believe that he never fully recovered from the ordeal. In subsequent congressional testimony, Hagel was often tentative compared to his immediate predecessors Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, for instance, and in public forums he frequently deferred to military leaders such as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Unnamed White House officials who have struggled to formulate a coherent strategy for the campaign to defeat the Islamic State have also criticized Hagel for being unable to articulate it forcefully.

“I do think the Senate confirmation hearings diminished Hagel, and after that he was tentative and cautious even as Congress continued to reject his defense budgets and proposed cuts to deal with sequestration [automatic defense cuts],” said Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. When White House officials concluded that the “team of rivals” model for the Cabinet didn’t work well in the first term, he said, and drew more decision-making power to themselves, Hagel was left to publicly defend policies he had little say in formulating. “In that sense he may be sort of a sacrificial lamb,” Korb added.

If historically, administrations have fired secretaries of defense in order to signal a major shift and a new policy, the primary question now is: What shift in foreign and defense policy does the Obama administration envision? Some early candidates mentioned as possible replacements might signal a turn towards a more robust foreign policy, especially with regard to prosecuting the campaign to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State, and leaving a U.S. military force in Afghanistan with the mandate and flexibility to thwart a return to power by the Taliban. Candidates in this vein could include Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate and former paratrooper who currently serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee (though Reed, through a spokesman, has taken himself out of contention for the post); and the outgoing SASC chairman, Carl Levin, D-Mich., who has taken muscular positions advocating the arming of Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State and the Bashar Assad regime, and has proposed sending defensive weapons to a Ukrainian government fighting Russian-backed separatist rebels.

The nomination of a previous Pentagon official, such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, would likely be seen as a more status quo choice. In that case the signal the Obama administration might be sending with its forced resignation of Chuck Hagel is that the reins of foreign and defense policy will be gathered ever more tightly into the hands of National Security Adviser Susan Rice and a close coterie of aides in the West Wing. In that case the message can reasonably be translated as “more of the same.”