Hagel Out


While the White House is at pains to say he was not fired, it sorta looks that way:

Administration officials said that Mr. Obama made the decision to remove Mr. Hagel, the sole Republican on his national security team, last Friday after a series of meetings between the two men over the past two weeks. The officials characterized the decision as a recognition that the threat from the militant group Islamic State will require different skills from those that Mr. Hagel, who often struggled to articulate a clear viewpoint and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary, was brought in to employ.

“This,” Morrissey declares, “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. …

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.

Michael Auslin calls Hagel’s uninspiring tenure at the Pentagon “more evidence of the damage that occurs when a president surrounds himself with those he knows he can dominate”:

[A]s the threats from Russia, China, and the Islamic State developed over the past two years, the president was more concerned about his image as the smartest man in the room and who would brook no opposition to his view of the world. A view, one might add, that shows remarkably little evolution during his six years as president. Thus, at a time of extraordinary global danger, America was saddled with a defense secretary not respected by his president, not expected to bring a sharp intellectual scalpel to the challenges of the day, and one who simply wasn’t up for the job. Early, private reports from inside the Pentagon indicate a sigh of relief, since the thought is it can’t get any worse.

Peter Feaver characterizes Hagel’s ouster as scapegoating for Obama’s own poor policy choices:

Pick your issue: the failure in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, the inability to check Russian President Vladimir Putin, the yawning ends-means gap in the defense budget, the fractious civil-military relations, the failure to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and so on. Regardless the issue, the chief weakness is not the performance of the staff but the decisions that could only have been made by the president. Of course, these are tough foreign policy problems and much of the difficulty can also be attributed to factors well beyond the control of the U.S. government. But to the extent that U.S. action or inaction is exacerbating the problem, those sins of omission and commission are primarily the president’s, not his staff’s.

Armin Rosen identifies Michèle Flournoy as the most likely choice among Hagel’s potential successors:

One of the leaders of Obama’s transition team at the Department of Defense, Flournoy was an under-secretary of defense from 2009 to 2012, during Robert Gates’ widely praised leadership at the Pentagon. She was was involved in implementing the surge in Afghanistan and is “widely seen as an advocate for the counterinsurgency approach,” former Navy intelligence officer Robert Caruso told Business Insider. Flournoy is also the co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank that became a Defense Department-in-waiting for Democratic-aligned natural security hands during the second Bush administration. CNAS is now viewed as an ideas factory — if not an adjunct — for the Obama-era Pentagon.

But Scott Shackford shudders at that possibility:

She seems to think it’s possible for America to “achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan” as long as we stay committed with money and resources. Read her report here, and then read some of examples of where money sent to Afghanistan is actually going here. The progressive anti-war group Institute for Policy Studies describes Flournoy’s love of military intervention and spending from the left here. They note she actually has more support from neoconservatives than Republican Hagel, vocal critic of the Iraq war. Rather than proposing a different course for the administration’s foreign policy, she appears to possibly be the person to entrench it for rest of Obama’s term.

And David Rothkopf, who approves of Flournoy, doubts she will solve what he sees as the administration’s fundamental problem:

The challenge is that the NSC and the national security team are always just a reflection of what the president wants. If President Obama is unwilling to ask himself how he must change in order to avoid and undo mistakes like those of the past two years, it doesn’t matter how many Cabinet secretaries come or go. If the move to swap out Chuck Hagel (apparently after a rather contentious tug-of-war about whether he should depart), is as it appears to be — a gesture designed to avoid addressing the real problems within the Obama team — then it is worse than empty. It is a further sign that this is a president resistant to growth or to finding a way to effectively advance the national security interests of the United States.