I Told You So (Chuck Hagel Edition)

Chuck Hagel was never cut out to be secretary of defense. I wrote as much. Repeatedly (just scroll down, and you will see). Hagel was selected because he was deemed the ideal secretary of defense to preside over declining Pentagon budgets and a declining American presence on the world stage, and astonishingly enough, he was also selected because rabid anti-Israel anti-Semites thought that selecting Hagel as secretary of defense would be a great way to “to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the ‘cooperation’ Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi’s transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?” Yes, you read that right; people like Stephen Walt wanted Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense so that it would hurt Benjamin Netanyahu’s feelings. That is how rigorous Walt’s thinking has become these days.

Well now, Hagel is gone. The firing was sudden, it was notable, and yes, it was a firing; do not believe the nonsensical claims that the decision to let Hagel go was somehow as much Hagel’s as it was the president’s:

[Hagel’s firing] was a striking reversal for a president who chose Mr. Hagel two years ago in part to limit the power of Pentagon officials who had repeatedly pushed for more troops in Afghanistan and a slower drawdown of American forces from Iraq. But in the end, Mr. Hagel’s passivity and lack of support in Mr. Obama’s inner circle proved too much for an administration that found itself back on a war footing.

Aides said Mr. Obama made the decision to remove his defense secretary on Friday after weeks of rising tension over a variety of issues, including what administration officials said were Mr. Hagel’s delays in transferring detainees from the military prison in Guantánamo Bay and a dispute with Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, over Syria policy.

The strains were evident in a stilted ceremony on Monday at the White House, where Mr. Obama called the defense secretary he had pushed out “exemplary” and lauded his status as the first enlisted combat veteran to hold the job, saying it had helped him to empathize with American soldiers. “He’s been in the dirt. He’s been in the mud,” Mr. Obama said. “He sees himself in them. They see themselves in him.”

But as the president spoke of the “blood and treasure and sacrifices” of enlisted men and women like Mr. Hagel, turning several times to try to address his defense secretary directly, Mr. Hagel stared ahead fixedly, declining to make eye contact with Mr. Obama.

So, I am guessing that Hagel and the president won’t be having any beers together in the near future. And the following is quite notable:

If the ouster of Mr. Hagel was intended to minimize coming fights with Congress, the Republicans were not impressed on Monday. “The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth secretary of defense,” Representative Howard (Buck) McKeon, Republican of California, said. “When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them, or is it me?’ ”

Good question. One wonders if the president will be brave enough to ask it of himself. And let’s remember that Hagel was never intellectually up to the job of being secretary of defense:

Even Mr. Hagel’s defenders say that articulating strategy is one of his biggest weaknesses. He never entirely gained traction in the administration after a bruising confirmation fight with his old Senate colleagues, when he was criticized for being tentative in his responses to sharp questions.

In the past few months he has been overshadowed by General Dempsey, who officials said had won the confidence of Mr. Obama with his recommendation of military action against the Islamic State.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that the decision to fire Hagel reflects broader and more serious problems with the Obama national security team:

Almost as soon as Hagel’s departure was reported, dueling narratives emerged about the real reason he’s stepping down. Administration officials whispered—predictably—that Hagel was never up to the task of running the fight against ISIS or responding nimbly and dependably to the other crises that appeared on the horizon. But others inside the Defense Department accused the White House of trying to micromanage the Pentagon and keep Hagel from stealing the spotlight, as earlier secretaries, including Panetta and Robert Gates had been known to do. And they said that the blame for managing foreign policy crises can hardly be heaped on the departing secretary. Inside the building, “the louder criticism is directed squarely at the White House and not the Pentagon,” according to another Defense Department official.


Former Democratic aide Brent Budowsky said Democrats across the Capitol saw Hagel’s ouster as the latest example of “unprecedented” drama created by “too tight and too controlling of an inner circle.”

He noted that not only had each of the president’s previous Defense secretaries voiced concern over his Syria policy, so had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This is going to precipitate a very visible battle beginning today and going through the confirmation of his successor about what the policy should be, and highlight the long-term and chronic internal disagreement,” said Budowsky, who is a columnist for The Hill.

Other defense experts say Hagel was not particularly close with the president or members of his national security team.

“He had no relationships that were already established within this administration,” said a retired military officer with current policy experience in Washington, who wanted to speak on background.

Unfortunately, the broader problems with the president’s national security team will likely not be addressed, as it seems that there will be no other firings of members of that team. A pity; whatever one’s feelings regarding Chuck Hagel’s performance at the Pentagon–and make no mistake, it was an exceedingly poor performance–there are other problems with the national security apparatus that need addressing, and those problems start with the equally poor performance turned in by national security adviser Susan Rice. But President Obama doesn’t seem to have the intellectual willingness, energy or horsepower to engaged in a deeper look at his national security team and their shortcomings. And the United States itself will pay the price for that lack of introspection with foreign and national security policies that are poorly designed and badly implemented.

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