Belmont Club

Hagel Gone

The New York Times characterizes Chuck Hagel’s departure as “the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and the struggles of his national security team to respond to an onslaught of global crises.” The article hints at an underlying conflict over policy and over Hagel’s “problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner”.

The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said. … He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

An unnamed source at NBC news leaves little doubt that Hagel was fired.

Senior defense officials confirmed to NBC News Monday that Hagel was forced to resign. The officials say the White House has lost confidence in Hagel to carry out his role at the Pentagon. According to one senior official, “He wasn’t up to the job.” Another senior administration official said that Hagel has been discussing a departure from the White House “for several weeks.” … Multiple sources also said that Hagel was originally brought to the job to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as the fight against the Islamic State ramped up, he was not as well matched for the post. “Rather than winding down two wars, we’re winding up,” said one source close to Hagel and top Pentagon officials.

Of course that reversal of fortune may have been the result of the administration’s strategic choices rather than Hagel’s inability to extricate them out from under a truck whose props have been knocked off by White House blunders. The unplanned nature of Hagel’s departure is underscored by the fact that a search for his replacement is only now underway. The leading candidate according to the Washington Post is Michèle Flournoy, “the under secretary of defense for policy from February 2009 to February 2012, while Robert Gates and Leon Panetta ran the Pentagon. She said she need to rebalance her life when she stepped down, but has remained active in Washington. Flournoy is currently the chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan think tank that the Obama administration is believed to have relied upon in developing national security policy.” Another candidate mentioned by the Washington Post, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, lost no time saying he wasn’t interested in the SecDef job. Flournoy, according to the Washingtonian, “has been a fixture in the Democratic defense-policy firmament for two decades, steadily amassing prestige and respect for her expertise as a strategist.” The article, written in 2011, is a long background piece on Flournoy’s rise to a senior — but not the top — job in the DOD. Written before EP’s re-election campaign, Flournoy’s view on Iraq did not align exactly with EP’s in retrospect.

CNAS staked out a centrist position on Iraq during a time of extreme political polarization. The debate among lawmakers and the administration was coming down to two unpalatable choices: immediate withdrawal of US forces or an indefinite military presence in Iraq. Flournoy and one of the think tank’s resident scholars, Shawn Brimley, argued for an alternate strategy they dubbed “the three nos”: Don’t allow a regional war to emanate from Iraq, don’t let the country become a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and don’t allow a genocide to break out among religious factions. Liberals were disturbed that a think tank so clearly associated with Democrats would sell its presidential candidates a policy that required tens of thousands of troops to be in Iraq for an undefined period. But Flournoy’s March 2007 idea, laid out in a policy brief titled “Enduring US Interest in Iraq,” offered a way out of the country, albeit a slow one. More important, it provided Democrats with an olive branch to offer the military, a constituency up for grabs due to the Bush administration’s poor prosecution of the war but still nervous about precipitous withdrawal. Flournoy’s brief threaded the needle by treating substantial troop withdrawals as a given—a palliative to liberals that avoided the hotly debated question of whether the United States ought to disengage—and by arguing for a flexible timeline for an ultimate departure.

The strategic choices in 2011 were far more abundant than they are at the end of 2014. In 2011 there were still choices.  But now the crisis in the Ukraine, the unraveling Middle East, and the lack of success in Afghanistan have driven foreign policy to the point of collapse. Now there’s nothing but burned bridges behind and a broad, inviting path over a minefield ahead.  The administration is on the defensive everywhere. They have utterly lost the power of initiative. There is little prospect that Hagel’s successor can reverse the situation, nor stabilize the rot because the root cause of the administration’s problems lies at its very top.  That “new car smell” in the Defense Department will be of little avail. The man whose resignation could have made a difference was Chuck Hagel’s boss.

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