U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down from his post after 21 months in office amid tension with the White House over strategy and the rise of new security challenges to the country.
President Barack Obama called the 68-year-old Hagel a steady hand at the Defense Department during a time of change, with the U.S. winding down its presence in Afghanistan, confronting new threats from the terrorist Islamic State group, and dealing with a strained defense budget.
Obama said Hagel approached him last month to discuss his role in the final two years of the administration. The two came to agree “that having guided the department through this transition, it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service,” he said.
The president’s aides and defense officials close to Hagel described frustration on both sides stemming from differences over policies and tight White House control of how U.S. strategy is communicated.
“On paper, Hagel looked perfect for the job -- a war hero, a former senator, a successful entrepreneur,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. “But his confirmation hearings did not go well, and his temperament proved ill-suited to such a politically sensitive job.”
Defense officials said Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had been marginalized in the administration. One official said Hagel had stopped speaking up at White House meetings because Obama’s aides with less experience in military affairs often ignored what he said.
Instead, he took to phoning the president after returning to his Pentagon office to shoot down what he considered bad ideas. Senior members of Obama’s national security team clashed with Hagel over U.S. strategy in Syria and in countering Islamic State.
Administration officials faulted Hagel’s role in identifying, and then presenting options to deal with the growing threats in the region. The proposals were considered flawed at times and inflexible at others, according to the officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal debates.
Hagel’s public appearances also raised concerns, according to one official, who asked for anonymity to describe internal discussions.
At a Pentagon news conference in August, Hagel called Islamic State “an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” The White House had been emphasizing that the Sunni terrorist group was primarily a threat to the government of Iraq.
At a briefing last month, Hagel said that while the issue is complex, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad “derives some benefit” from the U.S. focus on hitting Islamic State in Syria.
The tension between Hagel and top White House officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, has grown in recent months, the White House officials said.
Officials close to Hagel said the secretary chafed at the White House control over public statements and messaging, which aides said made it more difficult for him to articulate his views.
“Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who had opposed Hagel’s nomination, said in a statement.
“His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micromanagement they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck’s situation was no different,” said McCain, who will take over as chairman of the Armed Services Committee when the new Republican majority is seated in January.
In an interview today on KFYI radio in Phoenix, McCain said Hagel “was never really brought into that real tight circle inside the White House that makes all the decisions.”
Republican Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also blamed what he called White House intrusion into Pentagon affairs.
“The Obama administration is now in the market for their 4th secretary of defense,” McKeon said in a statement. “When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask ‘is it them, or is it me?’”
Asked whether Hagel was forced out, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama and Hagel “arrived together at the determination that new leadership should take over at the Pentagon.”
Obama didn’t name a replacement. Potential nominees include former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense. Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and West Point graduate, also has been mentioned as a possible candidate, though his spokesman said today he doesn’t want to be considered.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, on his Twitter account, called all three “solid choices.” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is a potential candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, offered as a “strong option” former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent.
Cruz, who has urged Republican leaders to halt confirmation of Obama’s nominees as a response to president’s use of executive authority on immigration, said the Senate should act promptly on the Defense secretary post.
Hagel was picked by Obama to replace Leon Panetta in 2013 as the Pentagon’s leader. The choice was criticized by Hagel’s fellow Republicans over his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, his comments about the influence of what he once called “the Jewish lobby,” and his opposition to the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq.
“I believe we have set not only this department, the Department of Defense, but the nation on a stronger course toward security, stability and prosperity,” Hagel said today at the White House. “If I didn’t believe that, I would not have done this job.”
The choice of Hagel’s successor is subject to confirmation by the Senate, which will have a Republican majority beginning in January. The next defense secretary also will face expanding security challenges while dealing with continuing pressure on the Pentagon’s budget.
In addition, Pentagon officials said, the next defense secretary will be caught, as Hagel has been, between a White House bent on limiting U.S. military engagement in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and mounting evidence that greater involvement in the war against Islamic State and a much slower withdrawal from Afghanistan are needed to prevent Islamic extremists from seizing control of more territory in those countries and elsewhere.
So far, said the officials, who requested anonymity to talk about internal debates, Obama and his inner circle have responded to recommendations for greater U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan from Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff with what they called half-measures, including an authorization for American forces in Afghanistan to protect themselves and limited additional trainers and advisers for the Iraqi military and Sunni tribes.
The next Defense secretary’s job will also be complicated by the prospect of interacting with members of Congress who are competing to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
One of the potential presidential candidates, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, is urging his colleagues to adopt a formal declaration of war against Islamic State, albeit one designed to limit the president’s authority to use ground combat forces in Iraq and Syria. Cruz serves on the Armed Services panel and will have the chance to question the nominee during confirmation hearings.