Nov. 25, 2014

Hagel Was the Wrong Guy for the Job

Chuck Hagel’s ouster is nothing if not a clear repudiation of the defense policy of his soon-to-be former boss, Barack Obama.

Chuck Hagel’s resignation, well, ouster, as secretary of defense is nothing if not a clear repudiation of the defense policy of his soon-to-be former boss, Barack Obama. When Obama chose Hagel two years ago, he did so because he was looking for someone who would implement a two-pronged strategy of shrinking America’s military while simultaneously disengaging it from world affairs. Not exactly a task for someone genuinely concerned about the threats this country faced. But Hagel was not a genuinely concerned kind of guy.

Hagel, technically a Republican while he was in the Senate, was a loud voice against the Iraq war who aligned himself with then-Senators John Kerry and Barack Obama in claiming the war against Jihadistan was not worth fighting. Without rehashing that old debate, it’s safe to say this stance was based on a wrong-headed view of the world. Hagel did not believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein was supporting international terrorists, or that losing Iraq to sectarian and terrorist strife would be disastrous to our Middle Eastern policy. All of these views have come to be disproved in grand style.

Obama chose Hagel, who was not known for possessing keen leadership skills, because Hagel fit his mindset. Hagel was reportedly often silent at meetings, not offering any constructive opinions. He functioned mostly as a conduit for Obama’s wishes. He never balked at the social engineering Obama wanted to inject into the military, nor did he put up much protest when it came to drawing down American forces to dangerously low levels. Hagel defended the latter policy by citing concerns related to budgets over those related to growing threats on numerous strategic fronts around the world.

But Hagel never quite fit in with Team Obama. The Chicago mob surrounding the president in the White House and the left-wing intelligentsia didn’t trust the man, whom they viewed as a Republican latecomer to the party.

It was only in recent weeks that Hagel seemed to get his head on straight. He started opposing Obama’s security strategies. White House officials claim he attempted to stall the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay because of his concerns about the security risks posed by releasing detainees. He also butted heads with National Security Adviser Susan Rice over policy on Syria, claiming it was in danger of coming apart because there were no clear objectives laid out.

And while Obama wished to slowly chip away at ISIL with little U.S. involvement, Hagel saw a much more serious threat. “ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group we have seen,” Hagel said in August. “They are beyond just a terrorist group. … I think the evidence is pretty clear. Yes they are an imminent threat to every interest we have whether in Iraq or anywhere else.”

It would figure in the Obama White House that, as soon as Hagel showed signs of coming to his senses, his days were numbered. It also figures that after a bruising midterm repudiation of his presidency, Obama would fire the only Republican in his cabinet. It’s certainly true the administration is in need of a foreign-policy team shakeup, but ousting Kerry, Rice or any of the other members of the team was never going to be an option.

Hagel was never a good choice for the position of secretary of defense. His level of competence was far below that required to fulfill the duties of his post, and his worldview remained skewed by a prejudice that America’s challenges were forged solely by America’s involvement in foreign affairs. Yet his failure in the position was not his alone.

Hagel was tasked with executing a series of bad decisions that only further compounded America’s problems overseas – pulling out of Afghanistan, cutting troop strength, cutting procurement orders and implementing social policies that have no business in the military. The list is long and infuriating. In short, Hagel failed in large part because he was in a no-win situation.

Potential replacements include Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary under Leon Panetta who embraces the small military model, and Ashton Carter, an academic considered to be an expert on budgets and weapons in the Pentagon. The primary element of success for a secretary of defense is serving a president who has an obvious dedication to America’s national security and a clear understanding of world affairs. We’re not going to see that for at least a couple of years.

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