Obama confirms defense secretary’s departure and pays tribute to Hagel’s work in awkward ceremony at the White House
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s passivity and lack of support in President Obama’s inner circle proved too much for an administration that found itself back on a war footing.
Chuck Hagel is out, and no matter who replaces him, we know this much about the state of Obama’s administration: it’s still addicted to secret war
Monday 24 November 2014 12.11 EST
The US defense secretary has been fired after less than two years in office as the White House reorders a national security strategy upended by the Islamic State (Isis).
When his criticism of US strategy in Syria leaked last month, the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, said it was important he remained “honest and direct” in his advice to the National Security Council. The long-winded but brutal response he received from the White House on Monday seems to have been anything but that.
It was clear, at least, that Hagel was being sacked, but it was death by platitude: a showering of public praise designed to make it as hard as possible for outsiders to discern precisely what he had done wrong.
“Chuck has been an exemplary defense secretary,” said Obama in an awkward White House departure ceremony. “He is somebody who has served ably and he is somebody in whom the president has the highest respect,” added the press secretary, Josh Earnest, in a public briefing for reporters.
But behind the scenes, senior administration officials did nothing to counter rumours of a more troubling explanation. Hagel was forced out because his job of winding down US military engagement in the Middle East was rapidly becoming one of winding it back up again.
The senior official said a successor would be nominated in “short order” and Hagel will serve until his successor’s confirmation.
“The priorities of the department, or at least of the new secretary, have changed given changes in the international community,” said Earnest in one of his more candid explanations. “It doesn’t mean that Secretary Hagel hasn’t done an excellent job of managing these crises as they have cropped up but it does mean that as we consider the remaining two years of the president’s time in office that another secretary might be better suited to meet those challenges.”
Privately, one official confirmed that Hagel’s departure was all “about the politics” of national security during the final phase of the Obama presidency. Susan Rice, the national security adviser, was the recipient of Hagel’s memo criticising the Syria strategy last month and appears to have been behind the ousting.
“It’s about the kind of NSC team they’re looking to build under Susan Rice during the final two years,” said the official.
Rice and other advisers on the NSC see themselves increasingly out of step with Hagel on a host of issues, from Syria and troop readiness to the size of the defense budget during a war against Islamic State militants that all sides now see as lasting for years.
What their alternative strategy might look like is rather less clear, however.
Hagel’s memo had criticised the failure to challenge Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which he warned was encouraging moderate US allies in the country to side with Isis forces instead.
Yet Rice has long been thought reluctant to be dragged further into the Syrian war by opening a second front with Assad. During the dawn of his tenure at the Pentagon, so was Hagel.
Pentagon leaders have also repeatedly warned that a successful fight against Isis in both Iraq and Syria may ultimately require US combat troops, something Obama has steadfastly opposed. Hagel and the joint chiefs chairman, General Martin Dempsey, during several rounds of congressional testimony, have portrayed that opposition as less than airtight.
Dempsey, in hailing Hagel’s departure, said that the outgoing defense chief’s “insight into the nature of military service was both rare and welcome”.
Republicans on Capitol Hill were quick to brand Rice and the White House as the culprits in Hagel’s downfall.
On Sunday, the New York Times also reported that the new Afghan president quietly lifted the ban on so-called “night raids,” clearing the way for them to once again be conducted in conjunction with American special forces. (Continuing its penchant for News Speak, the US military has reportedly renamed them “night operations” in light of how much they are hated by Afghans.)
While Hagel’s departure has already been framed around the Obama administration needing a “change” after the midterm elections, or as a scapegoat for the administration’s response to the Islamic State (Isis), but that just raises more questions than answers: Why does the Obama administration think removing the only Republican from its cabinet will satisfy an electorate that just voted in more Republicans? And how is firing Chuck Hagel supposed to be a magic wand for a faltering campaign to destroy Isis?
Taken with the Afghanistan news, as Marcy Wheeler points out, it’s clear that Obama’s White House wants to slot in someone who’s a lot more gung-ho about war. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who was long skeptical of the Iraq conflict, entered office “to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration,” as the Times’s Helene Cooper described.
But “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” an unnamed official told the Times, apparently unwilling to articulate the obvious: Obama wants the primary focus of his (and perhaps Hillary Clinton’s) next defense secretary to be ramping up troops and once again expanding the Pentagon’s almost limitless budget.
That’s not to say Hagel was an anti-war voice over the past two years when it came to Syria, Isis, or the drone wars – he wasn’t. He was just as hyperbolic as anyone in the administration about ISIS, and was “ready to go” for war against Bashir al-Assad in Syria in 2013. It just sounds like the administration thought he wasn’t sufficiently excited about conducting mulitple wars that will last for the next decade.
Hagel’s replacement remains an open question, but one thing’s for sure: it’ll be someone pushing for more war, not less. Former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy’s name was floated by the most people Monday morning. Flournoy, a favorite of defense contractors, has seemingly never met a military intervention she didn’t like – and that didn’t require more troops. As The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman wrote of Hagel’s possible successors:
Flournoy had been one of the defense intellectuals most closely allied with counter-insurgency. As one of the founders of the Center for a New American Security thinktank (CNAS), she promoted the 2007-era Iraq troop surge and, once installed as undersecretary of defense for policy, parlayed that advocacy into urging another troop surge in Afghanistan, intended to cleave Afghans from support for the Taliban.
Which is depressing for anyone who wants answers and honest policy:
— Stephen Walt (@stephenWalt) November 24, 2014
What Obama needs most at DoD is someone to question the conv. wisdom that drives US nat sec policy. But he won’t pick anyone like that.
The United States is almost five months into the multi-country war against Isis, still with no legal authority to do so, and now we can look forward to Congress questioning the next Pentagon chief on whether he or she is sufficiently willing to continue bombing, while the real question gets left unanswered: we still have no idea how the next 13 years of Forever War will be different than the first.
Whoever does take the job faces a tricky path between a confrontational Senate confirmation hearing process and a White House seemingly not entirely clear what it wants.
“[Obama and Hagel] arrived together at the determination that new leadership should take over at the Pentagon,” insisted its spokesman on Monday. Whether Obama’s fourth defense secretary can find his or her own consensus with the president remains to be seen.