When President Barack Obama chose former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to serve as his third secretary of defense, most Republicans were not amused. Obama was able to claim that his pick was an example of his reaching across the aisle, when in fact, most Beltway Repubs viewed Hagel with distrust.
Yes, Hagel is a Vietnam vet, a volunteer who was the first veteran of enlisted rank to head the Pentagon. Yes, he voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. But Hagel also turned against the Iraq War — and went so far as to assert that “of course” it was about oil. Hagel traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq with Obama during the 2008 campaign — a slap at his old friend and GOP nominee John McCain. Thus, Hagel was the perfect Obama pick; on paper, Hagel seemed to offer bipartisan appeal, but in reality, Hagel enraged the right. Only four GOP senators voted to confirm him.
On Monday, Hagel announced his resignation in a White House ritual humiliation exit ceremony. After devastating midterms, presidents often clean house.
In one sense, Hagel’s forced exit is reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the disastrous 2006 midterm elections. Except the difference here, Hoover Institution fellow Kori Schake pointed out, is that in terminating Rumsfeld, Bush “was announcing a change in approach. Obama fired Hagel while insisting there would be no change in approach.”
“They needed a dead body in the hallway,” Schake continued, and “Hagel was the most expendable” because he was not part of the president’s very tightknit and very like-minded inner circle.
If that wasn’t clear, look who was sitting in the front row during Hagel’s 15-minute goodbye: national security adviser Susan Rice. In October, Hagel sent Rice a two-page memo about his concerns that the administration’s Syrian strategy might strengthen the hand of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Now Hagel, the administration critic, is gone, and Rice, the administration enforcer, remains in power.
Schake was no fan of Hagel’s leadership at the Pentagon. She can’t get over the fact that in heat of the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, Hagel actually proposed the idea of banning smoking in the military. (“Really? That’s where you’re going to put your effort?”) Still, Schake believes that the president threw Hagel under the bus for something Hagel did right — his warning that military strategy in Syria needs to change.
Democrat Ellen Tauscher, a former member of the House and a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in the Obama administration, had nothing but positive things to say about Hagel, whom she called “an American patriot.”
“I think it’s unfortunate that the country lost his service and his advice to the president,” Tauscher told me. “Internecine fights about who gets to be close to the president are not serving anybody well.”
In November, when voters returned the Senate to the GOP and sent even more Republicans to the House, they were sending the White House a message. You can be sure that this president did not hear it. What Obama heard was that there was a Cabinet member who did not agree with him all the way. Thus, Hagel had to go.