Defense Secretary Hagel resigns amid national security challenges
WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon absorbed the shock of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s unexpected resignation Monday, another realization set in: Neither Hagel’s departure, just like those of his two predecessors, nor the arrival of his successor promises major changes in the Obama administration’s approach to national security policy.
The military still will be tasked with degrading and destroying the Islamic State with minimal involvement of ground troops, a challenging task, commanders concede.
It will maintain a residual force in Afghanistan. It still will face budget cuts. And the White House’s decisions on national security issues will remain dominated by President Obama’s closest advisers, not cabinet secretaries or generals.
That reality led Hagel’s defenders on Capitol Hill to charge Monday that the Vietnam War veteran and former senator from Nebraska had become a “scapegoat for an administration’s failed policies,” as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., put it in a statement.
Hagel’s critics charged that because the job has become so difficult, it demands a more polished leader. Some in the Pentagon bluntly asserted that he wasn’t up to the job.
The circumstances of his resignation remained unclear. At a White House ceremony, Obama said Hagel had resigned. Hours later, his press secretary, Josh Earnest, called it a mutual decision and the natural point to end a cabinet posting. Some Defense officials, meanwhile, told Tribune News Service that Hagel had resigned Thursday after White House chief of staff Denis McDonough visited the Pentagon.
When Hagel’s successor is installed, Obama will become the first president to have four secretaries of Defense since Harry S. Truman, who was president when the National Security Act of 1947 established the Cabinet post. The two secretaries who have served under Obama — Robert Gates and Leon Panetta — each wrote books on leaving the Pentagon, leveling unusually candid criticism at the White House and how the administration made decisions about national security policy. Both charged that such discussions were often insular and guided predominantly by domestic politics.
Analysts said the fact the Obama administration had so many Defense secretaries might be because Hagel and his predecessors had found the administration’s approach untenable or because the job was simply very difficult in a world of budget cuts and declining public support for overseas entanglements.
“It could be true there are challenges working within the national security team, but it is also tough to be secretary when wars are being fought and budgets are being cut,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research institute in Washington. “Will the next secretary of Defense be less reticent and more hawkish and advise we need to send troops to combat zones? If so, we can anticipate a change in policy. But it is not just the person but the mood of the country that shapes policy.”
Charlie Dunlap Jr., executive director of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, who retired from the military in 2010 as a major general, said the departure made sense.
“Mr. Hagel was brought on board to facilitate the downsizing of Defense, but world events are causing a rethinking of the wisdom of doing so,” Dunlap said. “The skills required to address the range of today’s very serious threats do not, in my view, play to Mr. Hagel’s strengths.”