clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Obama should blame himself, not Chuck Hagel, for Hagel's failure as Defense Secretary

President Obama and Chuck Hagel announce the latter's retirement
President Obama and Chuck Hagel announce the latter's retirement
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The official reason President Obama is "announcing the resignation of" (read: firing) Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to the extent that the White House is quasi-announcing it by leaking it to the New York Times, is that Hagel has the wrong skill set to deal with ISIS. Hagel's resignation, they told the Times, is "recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ." Hagel is a dovish Republican who came on to transition the Pentagon out of war mode after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ended; now it turns out that Obama needs a wartime secretary to take on ISIS.

That's the official reason, but it's not the real reason. The real reason is that Obama is trying to fix a much bigger problem: US foreign policy has been struggling throughout Obama's second term (Hagel came on in early 2013 when that term began), and Obama has been hinting that he would replace one or two top people to try to fix it.

Obama is right that Hagel did a weak job. But he has mistaken Hagel's poor performance as a cause of Obama's struggling foreign policy, when in fact it's a symptom of the real, underlying problem: Obama has neutered his cabinet secretaries on foreign policy, forcing all decisions through an intelligent but too-small team in the White House. Firing Hagel, of all people, is just going to perpetuate the problem rather than fix it.

Hagel's failures are real, but there's a deeper issue behind them

Chuck Hagel with Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

One could argue that Hagel's most important job as Secretary of Defense isn't actually managing the Pentagon: it's being the official link between the US military, a vast and needy institution, and the White House (as well as, to a lesser degree, Congress). He's supposed to be the Pentagon's representative at the White House, advocating for the institution and its views on American foreign policy, and he's supposed to be the White House's representative at the Pentagon, executing on the president's policies.

Hagel has failed at that; he did not contribute to high-level foreign policy discussions in the White House, disappointing a Pentagon that wanted him to advocate on its behalf, and he failed to steer the Pentagon toward Obama's decisions, disappointing the White House. As the Times put it, Hagel "has often had problems articulating his thoughts - or administration policy - in an effective manner." The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports, "Sources tell me that Hagel would sit through entire meetings in Situation Room without uttering a word. Left others most unimpressed."

Hagel is not known for coming across as especially impressive in person. He is often inarticulate and can be awkward. Still, there have been inarticulate and awkward agency chiefs who have succeeded in the past. While Hagel's temperament did not help him impose his will at the White House or the Pentagon, he would have failed in his job all the same even if he were more charismatic and strong-willed. The truth is that, the way that Obama designed Hagel's job, he was always doomed to fail.

The problem that Obama thinks he's solving


In Obama's view, he needed to shake up his top foreign policy team to fix his administration's faltering foreign policy. He also needed to fix his White House's poor relations with the foreign policy agencies, of which the Pentagon is the largest. So replacing Hagel, in that view, would make sense.

Both of those premises are correct. Obama's foreign policy has been struggling since he began his second term in 2013, which is also when Hagel came on. And those failures have often had to do with the Pentagon, and thus with Hagel: the failure to force peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure to convince Egyptian defense minister Abdel Fateh el-Sisi not take power in a coup (Hagel, who knows Sisi, tried to dissuade him), the failure to predict or halt the rise of ISIS.

But Obama has erred by mistaking Hagel's ineffectual job as Defense Secretary as the cause of the problem. In fact, Hagel's missteps are a symptom of the real problem, which has to do with the way that Obama's administration makes foreign policy.

How Obama doomed Hagel to failure

National Security Adviser Susan Rice, at right, stands in the Oval Office (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty)

Obama has been trying something very different with his foreign policy during his second term. That approach doomed Hagel to failure.

The way that presidents traditionally make foreign policy is by working with, and through, the key agencies: the State Department, the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and of course the Pentagon. That's what Obama did in his first term, in part by appointing strong people to lead the agencies, particularly Robert M. Gates to run the Pentagon and Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Gates and Clinton were strong forces running their agencies and within the White House, shaping US foreign policy through both.

That made for good policy, but it came at costs: Gates and Clinton and their respective agencies pushed foreign policy in directions that Obama wouldn't have gone on his own, for example by intervening in Libya in 2011 and sending more troops to Afghanistan in 2009. They and their agencies leaked unflattering quotes and stories. And they hammered Obama with open criticism.

Obama hated all of this, and so in his second term he deliberately appointed weak cabinet secretaries whom he could control: Hagel and John Kerry, who became Secretary of State, are both Obama's former Senate colleagues and friendly allies; they are also not known as strong-willed. Then Obama weakened the agencies (Pentagon, State Department, CIA) even further by concentrating more and more of the foreign policy decision-making within a small, closed White House team.

At the center of that team is National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The National Security Council (NSC), which Rice leads, is supposed to be the president's personal White House brain trust for foreign policy. But it's become something much bigger: the chief foreign policy agency of the Unites States.

That would be okay if Obama's small White House staff were so brilliant that they could really replace the hundreds of people at the State Department and Pentagon who are supposed to be setting US foreign policy. But they're not, and they can't, and that's part of why American foreign policy has been sort of a mess the last couple of years. Hagel never had a chance.

The real problem isn't Hagel, it's Obama

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Obama's strategy of concentrating foreign policy-making away from the agencies and in the White House didn't just doom Hagel; it's really hurt US foreign policy. The rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the struggle to roll the group back is a time when Obama needed strong agencies and strong cabinet secretaries. The fact that Obama lacked these things isn't Hagel's fault. It's Obama's fault. Firing Hagel suggests that Obama does not see that, and will in fact perpetuate the problem.

Hagel, it's true, was not great at his job. But he was bad at his job in no small part because Obama designed the job to be impossible, by shutting out agencies such as the Pentagon and concentrating policymaking within his too-small inner circle.

What's telling about all of this is that there's been speculation for a couple of months that, after the midterm elections, the Obama administration would fire some lead foreign policy people to try to fix its foreign policy problems. But everyone thought he would fire someone who works in the White House, such as Susan Rice. The reason people thought this is that White House staffers like Rice are the ones with all the power over foreign policy, so if the foreign policy is bad it is probably their fault.

Instead, Obama fired someone outside of the White House, which suggests that he thinks the problem is that his cabinet secretaries and agencies aren't good enough. But they're never going to be good enough as long as Obama dooms them to irrelevance, and leaves their agencies helpless, by funneling everything through the cozy confines of the NSC. The fact that the NSC and White House staff are intact suggests their power will stay intact, and that means whoever takes over for Hagel will not be much better off. The problems will merely perpetuate.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.