How Obama Pushed Hagel Out of the Pentagon

Chuck Hagel, U.S. secretary of defense, left, listens as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama pushed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel out of his job yesterday after less than 21 months, with White House officials citing disagreements over Iraq and Syria policy.

Hagel, who had grown increasingly frustrated with tight White House management of policy, was ready to go anyway, a U.S. defense official said. He resigned without a fight.

The Vietnam veteran’s departure spotlights how one of Washington’s most powerful jobs -- overseeing the world’s strongest military and a budget of more than $600 billion -- has faded in the Obama era. Under Obama, the strict White House control often has left Hagel and other Cabinet members with limited authority and autonomy.

“The White House has really wanted to minimize the influence of the Pentagon on policy,” said Rosa Brooks, who was counselor to then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy during Obama’s first term.

Like his immediate predecessors at the Pentagon, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Hagel chafed at the way a small cadre of Obama loyalists centralized power in the White House. When Obama backed off a threat to bomb Syria last year, he made the decision on a walk with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Hagel was informed of the decision later.

Tension between Hagel and White House aides got so bad, the defense official said, that Hagel would often phone Obama after the meetings to make sure his voice was heard.

Hagel ‘Frustrated’

Now, the challenge for the White House is finding a successor who’s willing to take a relatively weak throne and content to avoid dissent. That candidate will also have the task of changing the Pentagon even as career bureaucrats know there’s little time left under Obama to do so.

“Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement yesterday. “His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micro-management they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck’s situation was no different.”

The White House’s National Security Council staff, designed to coordinate policy among the various federal agencies, has grown substantially under Obama -- to roughly 270 people from about 200 under President George W. Bush, according to Reuters.

Its size and physical proximity to the White House, just across a small access road, have given it greater influence than Cabinet agencies in the development, and sometimes the implementation, of policy, according to a former defense official who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

Syria Letter

During his stint leading the Defense Department, Hagel bristled at his treatment by Obama’s aides, who often shot down his ideas in meetings, according to the defense official.

One of his concerns centered on U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria, where limiting the use of American military force in Syria to Islamic State and other extremist groups threatens to strengthen dictator Bashar al-Assad and discourage allies such as Saudi Arabia from participating in the coalition.

In October, Hagel wrote a letter to Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice, with whom he often clashed, seeking clarity on U.S. policy toward Assad.

“Secretary Hagel’s recent memo about how our strategy is failing and must be adjusted was welcome news to those of us who have harbored these thoughts for some time,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican said in a statement. “It’s clear to me Secretary Hagel realizes our failures in Syria have also greatly contributed to destabilization in Iraq and a more robust response is required.”

Budget Friction

While it confirmed the fears of some lawmakers, the letter infuriated Obama’s White House aides, the defense official said. Its existence was first reported by the New York Times last month in an article about White House officials planning to shake up the Cabinet.

The defense budget was another source of friction between Hagel and the White House, particularly the constraints imposed by automatic cuts known as sequestration, and last-minute administration guidance to the Defense Department to ask Congress for more money than the budget caps allowed.

Hagel viewed sequestration, officials close to the defense secretary said, as a political and policy blunder based on a bad reading of the likely Republican response and an even worse assessment of growing threats around the world. They included Islamic extremism, the collapse of authoritarian Arab regimes, a newly assertive China and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions on the list of threats.

Favorable Narrative

All of those dangers, the officials said, were highlighted in U.S. and allied intelligence analyses but officials around Obama chose to highlight a more favorable narrative. In the White House’s telling, militant Islam was in retreat after the death of Osama bin Laden and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down and leaving self-sufficient regimes in place. Therefore, the U.S. could afford to cut the defense budget.

Hagel pushed back, arguing that the proposed budget was insufficient in light of the growing threats. The White House eventually acceded, one of the officials said, though the result is a more complicated 2015 budget request.

While the budget battle wasn’t the main cause of tension between the White House and the Pentagon, it didn’t help.

“It’s like financial troubles in a marriage that’s on the rocks,” said Eliot A. Cohen, who served as an official at the Defense and State departments under Republican presidents. “It makes everything worse.”

Potential Successors

Hagel’s possible successors include Flournoy and Ashton Carter, a former deputy defense secretary. Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and West Point graduate, took himself out of contention yesterday.

None of Obama’s defense secretaries has had the clout wielded by Robert McNamara, who served in the job for seven years and helped lead the U.S. into the Vietnam War, and Donald Rumsfeld, who crafted the American military response after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Washington insiders say that the job has lost value because the diminished standing at the White House also leaves the defense secretary with less clout inside the Pentagon. That’s especially true in the final two years of the administration, when career officials know they can wait out the politically appointed civilian in charge.

“They’re not going to do anything now,” said former Representative Ellen Tauscher, who headed a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and later served as an undersecretary of State in the Obama administration.

‘Death Spiral’

“You get into this kind of death spiral. The more that they understand you don’t have the juice to get things done inside the Sit Room, the less they’re going to be willing to work with you to get done the things that you need to get done,” said Tauscher, using shorthand to describe the White House Situation Room.

Brooks said Flournoy’s unlikely to take the job unless it’s because Hagel’s departure signals a fundamental shift in the way that Obama treats the defense secretary.

“The optimistic view is that the president has taken criticism to heart, looked in the mirror and decided to rethink his approach,” she said. “If they asked her and she took it, it would really be a sign that that they are trying to make changes.”

Gates, who was Obama’s first defense secretary after serving in the same capacity under Bush, said recently that he saw politics in the White House’s effort to keep the Pentagon on a short leash.

“It was that micromanagement that drove me crazy,” Gates said at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library defense forum earlier this month.

Gates said he advised field commanders that if “you get a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me,” Gates said. “I think when a president wants highly centralized control” at “the degree of micromanagement that I’m describing, that’s not bureaucratic. That’s political.”

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