Chuck Hagel Is Leaving, But Problems with the Obama Administration’s National Security Apparatus Will Remain

Let there be absolutely no doubt that Chuck Hagel was at best, an inconsequential secretary of defense, and at worst, a terrible one. But while we ought to be relieved that Hagel has been shown the door, we also ought to be concerned that a completely dysfunctional national security apparatus will remain long after Hagel is gone:

Two months before he was pushed out as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel penned a private letter to the White House, arguing for new measures to rein in Russian President Vladimir Putin and greater efforts to reassure anxious European allies, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Shortly after the September letter, he wrote another memo calling for the administration to clarify its approach to the conflict in Syria. The two messages capped a year of frustrations for Mr. Hagel, who repeatedly found fault with what he saw as indecisiveness by the White House National Security Council, according to current and former officials close to him.

“One of the things that Hagel values most is clarity,” said a confidante of the defense secretary. “That’s not something that this White House has always done well.”

Mr. Hagel wasn’t alone in his frustration. His upset over what he saw as slow decision-making and White House micromanagement of the Defense Department was shared by his two immediate predecessors at the Pentagon.

[. . .]

James Jeffrey, who served as Mr. Obama’s ambassador in Turkey and Iraq, said of Mr. Hagel: “His removal won’t make things better because he was not the source of the problem. The problems seem to be closer to the president.”

Other members of Mr. Obama’s security cabinet have privately voiced similar frustrations, complaining to aides about monthslong discussions that lead to no decision and of having little input in the process, which is tightly controlled by a small number of top White House aides, officials who work for these cabinet secretaries say.

Mr. Hagel’s predecessor, Mr. Panetta, a Democrat, complained to aides that the NSC let proposals “just hang out there” without being acted upon. “You can’t use caution as an excuse not to make a decision,” Mr. Panetta told aides.

And of course, the White House does not seem to be inclined to do anything about these problems:

With his party in a shambles after a disastrous midterm election and his administration ensnared in a messy war in the Middle East, the president stood in the East Room and showed his defense secretary the door.

History seemed to repeat itself this week when President Obama dismissed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, much as President George W. Bush sacked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld eight years ago this month. But beyond the eerie echo, Mr. Hagel’s removal bears little resemblance to that of Mr. Rumsfeld.

The ouster of Mr. Rumsfeld signaled a fundamental change of thinking about the United States’ war strategy and a profound shift in power inside Mr. Bush’s administration as it came to the end of its sixth year. The departure of Mr. Hagel, on the other hand, augurs no such pivot for the Obama administration and seems to cement the current approach to national security.

Mr. Hagel fell short in the president’s eyes because he was passive and quiet in Situation Room deliberations, hardly the commanding figure needed when the country is in a new war against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. To the White House, he seemed a captive of the generals and not in sync with the president’s team.

“The clear suggestion is that the White House does indeed still want a doormat — Hagel just forgot whose doormat he was supposed to be,” said Rosa Brooks, a former Obama administration official at the Pentagon. “So it’s sure looking like this move presages a White House doubling down on existing ways of doing business, not a White House interested in making real changes.”

Others pointed to Mr. Hagel’s pushback on budget cuts and a recent memo he wrote criticizing the White House strategy for Syria. “With Hagel, President Obama is firing the guy who wants to change the policy,” said Stephen Biddle of George Washington University, who advised Mr. Bush’s White House on Iraq strategy. “With Rumsfeld, Bush was firing the guy who had opposed changing the policy and was widely seen as a barrier to new thinking.

“So whereas the Rumsfeld firing cleared the way for a policy reversal,” he added, “the Hagel firing appears to be reinforcing a continuation of the pre-existing strategy by removing one of its critics.”

Would it be too much to ask–or perhaps even demand–that some senator say something about this dysfunctional national security apparatus during confirmation hearings when we have a nominee for secretary of defense? Would it be too much to ask–or perhaps even demand–that some senator say something about how no sane person would or should want to be secretary of defense in this environment? Or will senators during the confirmation hearings be content to pretend that there are no problems whatsoever with the Obama administration’s national security team and approach, and that everything is proceeding as planned?

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