Hagel Paid for Obama's Confusion

Another one bites the dust.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Spare a moment of pity for Chuck Hagel. Beginning with his humiliating confirmation hearings to be U.S. secretary of defense last year through last week's embarrassing revelations about the state of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the ex-sergeant and senator always seemed in over his head.

That said, Hagel was as much of a victim of the White House's contradictory military policies as of his own weaknesses. Last week's report that the Pentagon will have a far more active role in Afghanistan next year than had been planned -- including stepped-up use of ground troops, jets, drones and night missions -- was a manifestation of a tension that is threatening to overwhelm Barack Obama's foreign policy in the last two years of his presidency: how to fight Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq while also fulfilling his vow to end both wars.

These goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- the long fight against global terrorism is both more and less than a ground war in a particular country -- but something has to give. Or rather, two somethings: the White House's unwieldy pledges to not deploy ground troops in Iraq and to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Getting rid of Hagel may not change much -- he wasn't really opposed to any significant part of the Obama agenda. And his replacement, whoever it may be, can be expected to be in broad agreement with the man who chooses her (or him) for the job.

In the Obama administration, military and national-security strategy has increasingly been set by a group of presidential confidantes in the White House and National Security Council. There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of concentration of decision-making; the important thing is getting the strategy right.

The question is whether, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has the strategy right. One answer is no, because it has failed to resolve the inconsistency between its strategic and political goals. And another answer might as well be no, because it has failed so spectacularly in elucidating its goals to begin with. (Yes, there are many other possible answers. For the purposes of this editorial, however, those are the two that matter.)

It's silly to pretend that Hagel's replacement will bring about a change in policy or wholesale reform of the Pentagon. But the new secretary of defense will need to better articulate the administration's policies -- and, not incidentally, push the president to clarify his intentions. The choice of the next nominee will say quite a bit about how far Obama is willing to go -- including back on his promises -- to fight Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.