Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel has resigned his position under pressure from the Obama White House. According to one senior administration official, “He wasn’t up to the job.” Of course, if competence were the standard, President Obama himself should resign.
Hagel is being made the fall guy for Obama’s own national security failures, including not forcefully addressing the ISIS threat at a more opportune time to destroy ISIS. After all, it was Obama who derided the jihadist militants earlier this year as being akin to a junior varsity team.
Obama had precipitously pulled all American troops out of Iraq in 2011, against the advice of his military advisers, which helped create a vacuum filled by ISIS. Then he watched and did nothing while ISIS racked up victory after victory in Iraq during the last year, ignoring warnings from Iraqi government officials, U.S. intelligence and U.S. military leaders. Hagel added his own warning, declaring that ISIS represented an “imminent threat to every interest we have.”
Finally, in response to mounting criticism from home and abroad that he was showing no leadership while multiple global crises were exploding around him, President Obama first ordered air attacks on ISIS positions in Iraq while telegraphing to the enemy what he would not do. Then he expanded the air attacks to parts of Syria, while gradually increasing the number of U.S. troops he was willing to send back to Iraq, ostensibly to play a non-combat role.
Incredibly, senior administration officials are reported by the New York Times to have claimed, as justification for the pressure on Hagel to resign, that Hagel lacked the skills to deal with the ISIS threat. It was Obama – not Hagel – who had so recklessly minimized the ISIS threat in Iraq when it could have been dealt with more readily. And it was Obama – not Hagel – who admitted he had no strategy to deal with the ISIS threat in Syria. Hagel had his eyes open and saw the ISIS threat more clearly. Obama looked away as long as he could. But Hagel takes the fall.
President Obama chose Hagel for the Pentagon chief post in the first place to serve as the nominal Republican in his cabinet. Hagel also shared Obama’s skepticism about the Iraq War. Hagel’s combination of actual war experience as a Vietnam veteran and his cautiousness in committing American troops to vaguely defined missions suited Obama’s own inclinations. After having experienced the strongly opinionated Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, who went on to criticize the president in his memoir, Obama appears to have wanted someone he thought would focus more on internal management of the Pentagon than embroiling himself in national security policy debates.
Opposition to Hagel’s nomination among his former colleagues in the Senate and among some analysts stemmed in part from the remarks he has made about the Iraq War over the years and his evident anti-Israel bias. Questions were also raised about his overall fitness for the job. Hagel did himself no favors in that regard with his widely criticized poor performance during his Senate confirmation hearings. Nevertheless, Hagel was eventually confirmed as defense secretary by the Senate in a 58-41 vote.
During his relatively brief tenure, Hagel served as Obama’s manager of a diminishing U.S. military footprint. Hagel oversaw the draw-down of troops in Afghanistan that Obama had ordered, and began the process of looking for ways to trim the Pentagon’s budget.
However, on matters of national security and crafting responses to emerging threats such as ISIS, Hagel never made it into the inner circle of decision-makers in the Obama administration. He is reported to have remained mum during cabinet meetings, as he concluded that his advice was not being taken seriously by those who had the president’s ear. Hagel is said to have provided his advice to Obama in one-on-one phone calls, but he was still relegated to the outer periphery of influence on Obama’s final decisions.
While Hagel came across during his Senate confirmation hearings and in some public appearances since he became defense secretary as tentative and unsure of himself, he is no shrinking violet. He has at times expressed the kind of sharp-edged skepticism about the direction that the current president is taking the country’s military and national security that he displayed as a senator regarding former President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War.
For example, Hagel wrote a memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice last month raising concerns about the administration’s Syria strategy, particularly how to best deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad while simultaneously fighting ISIS in Syria.
Rice is at the heart of Obama’s inner circle and does not take kindly to disagreements with her patron’s policies. “I guess I could be a testosterone-driven, territorial kind of personality in this role,” Rice was quoted by the New York Times last month as having said. “My view on this is that it’s an asset to have a partner down the hall.”
Hagel did not have that kind of access to the president. He had also been losing patience with what he regarded as interference on his own turf by an inexperienced White House national security team.
Said Senator John McCain, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I know that Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the Administration’s national security policy and decision-making process. His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micro-management they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck’s situation was no different.”
During an interview with Charlie Rose last week, Chuck Hagel’s frustration seemed to have boiled over. Hagel expressed concern about the military’s declining capability under President Obama’s watch. “I am worried about it, I am concerned about it, Chairman Dempsey is, the chiefs are, every leader of this institution,” Hagel said, referring to the Pentagon. Then, in a not-too-subtle slap at the dithering that Obama brings to decision-making when a quick response from a capable and confident leader is required instead, Hagel added that “the main responsibility of any leader is to prepare your institution for the future. If you don’t do that, you’ve failed. I don’t care how good you are, how smart you are, any part of your job. If you don’t prepare your institution, you’ve failed.”
President Obama has displayed a thin skin time and time again. Truly believing that he is always the smartest person in the room, Obama wants yes-people around him. Hagel, for all his faults, did not fit that mold.
During a White House ceremony Monday at which Hagel’s resignation was officially announced, Obama said he and the defense secretary had determined it was an “appropriate time for him to complete his service.” Obama’s praise for Hagel as an “exemplary defense secretary” rings no truer than all of Obama’s other statements on a variety of topics. Hagel served as Obama’s scapegoat. Sadly, this president’s national security failures will continue.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.