News broke early on Monday that the United States is taking a new direction for the leadership of the Department of Defense, with the announcement that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would be stepping down from the position as soon as his replacement was found. Though the decision was presented as voluntary after a series of consultations with the President, it is clear that Hagel was pushed out of his position because of a changing tide in foreign policy.

Hagel was brought on when the foreign policy vision for the United States consisted of downsizing in Afghanistan, pulling troops back and managing a smaller defense budget. But, as we’ve seen so many times before, the world never stays the same for too long. The emerging threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), escalating tensions with Russia and the Ebola epidemic are three of many renewed threats to world stability that have made the policy of de-escalation invalid, and thus too jeopardized Hagel’s position in the administration.

Image courtesy of Secretary of Defense, ©2013, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Secretary of Defense, ©2013, some rights reserved

The fight against the Islamic State is currently unpredictable, and the Obama Administration is seeking a secretary of defense that can manage the Department of Defense as the United States re-engages in conflict. Explaining the change in personnel, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated: “It doesn’t mean that Secretary Hagel hasn’t done a excellent job of managing these crises as they’ve cropped up, but it does mean that as we consider the next remaining two years of the president’s time in office, that another secretary might be better suited to meet those challenges.”[1]

The 68-year old Vietnam war veteran decorated with two Purple Hearts is the first enlisted combat veteran to rise to this position, as Obama mentioned at the announcement of his resignation at the White House on Monday. Obama credited him with the authenticity he brought to the role, saying; “He’s been in the dirt. He’s been in the mud. And that has established a special bond.” Hagel was nominated in February 2013 as Obama developed his now signature policy of unwinding conflict in Afghanistan and releasing detainees from Guantanamo.

Personal issues with Hagel

Hagel has been a controversial figure in American politics, straddling the divide between the Republican and Democratic parties. Most notably, Hagel voted against a surge in the Iraq war in 2007, prompting an aggressive response from McCain and landing him in hot water with the Republicans. His position in the Republican Party was further compromised when he chose to endorse Democrat candidate Obama instead of Senator McCain. In recent times, Hagel struggled to penetrate the inner circle of Obama’s trusted advisers, which may have been a large contributing factor to his somewhat forced resignation. He also received criticism from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough for being unable to control the Pentagon, which was believed recently to be the source of leaks over the expanding war with the Islamic State. Finally, Hagel was criticized for being a roadblock in signing off on transfers of detainees who had been cleared for release from Guantanamo and was accused of slowing the progress on Obama’s policy to close the detention camp. These specific issues seem to be specific to Hagel, and may have contributed to friction that led to his resignation.

Wider issues at play

However, this resignation goes beyond any issues personal to Chuck Hagel. As McKeon, the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, noted in his comments to the press, “When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them or is it me?’

Who will succeed Hagel? Whatever candidate will succeed him, their approval will be pending on the decision of a Republican-controlled senate in the aftermath of a disastrous mid-term election for the Democrats. Republicans leaders have been vocal about their desire for a more aggressive stance on the fight against the Islamic State, and this might influence their choice.

Three possible nominations have arose from the White House in the hours after the announcement of Hagel’s resignation: Michelle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, who has since founded a think tank called the Center for a New American Security. Flournoy, who could have been the first ever female secretary of defense, withdrew her candidacy rapidly on Tuesday morning, citing “family concerns” and stating it was “not the right time for me to re-enter government.”[2] This follows on from a similar reaction of another possible candidate, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who took himself out of the running, stating that he is happy with the job he has and he would not like to be considered for the role. That leaves the last of the three candidates whose names were floated from the White House shortly after the news broke: Ashton Carter, former undersecretary of defense. Is it the culture of the Department of Defense that no one is willing to step up to this position? The reluctance of two candidates to take on the job is in line with criticism received from Hagel’s immediate predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, who complained that bureaucratic intervention and constant meddling in their decisions constricted their role. Hagel expressed his dissatisfaction in an uncharacteristically severely worded memo sent to Susan Rice in October where he criticized the direction of the United States’ foreign policy in Syria, calling it “ill-defined.”

Overall, the resignation seems to be as much about dissatisfaction with Hagel’s shortcomings in the role as demonstrating a symbolic change in leadership to enemies abroad and to internal critics of Obama’s foreign policy decisions. However, it seems that the secretary of defense shouldn’t be chosen as a one-trick pony, appointed for the sole purpose of de-escalating a war. The United States, apart from being one of the most powerful nations in the world, is a police for the international community, and they should be aware that threats that arise within the global arena would inevitably affect their defense plan. Hagel’s resignation is clearly symptomatic of an ill-defined foreign policy that has not adequately considered the constant shift and emergence of new threats on the international stage.

 

[1] Thrush, Glenn (2014) “How Obama Dumped Hagel” November 24, 2014, Politico Magazine, accessed online http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/11/hagel-dump-obama-113152_Page2.html#.VHWeYlesV3c

[2] Hudson, Josh “Michèle Flournoy Takes Herself Out of Running for Top Pentagon Job”, 25th November 2014, Foreign Policy, accessed online http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/11/25/exclusive_flournoy_drops_out_of_race_to_be_next_secretary_of_defense