Shadow Government

How Did Chuck Hagel End Up as the White House’s Scapegoat?

The news that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down has been foreshadowed for weeks, so it does not qualify as a shock. But neither does it qualify as an obvious and logical next move for an administration so clearly struggling to manage myriad foreign policy challenges. Hagel had a troubled tenure from the outset — given ...

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The news that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down has been foreshadowed for weeks, so it does not qualify as a shock. But neither does it qualify as an obvious and logical next move for an administration so clearly struggling to manage myriad foreign policy challenges.

Hagel had a troubled tenure from the outset — given his rocky confirmation hearings, it hardly could have been otherwise. Since his earliest days in the job, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism of him in the press and, tellingly, he was often the target of unattributed criticisms from fellow Obama administration officials. In an administration rife with internal conflict and finger pointing, he sometimes pointed the finger at others, but more often the fingers — especially White House fingers — were pointed at him.

Yet he was hardly the only senior Obama official to be singled out for criticism from insiders and knowledgeable outsiders. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice have both been the subject of withering critiques peppered with spicy insider quotes. And while she has no formal role on foreign policy matters, many people inside and outside the administration believe that Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett has been a big part of Obama’s problem.

In fact, if you were to poll knowledgeable observers to compile a list of the "Top 10 Problems with President Obama’s Foreign and National Security Policies," the performance of Secretary Hagel would barely make 10th place, if it made the list at all. Even in the area of closest relevance to Hagel’s responsibilities, civil-military relations, I would list several factors ahead of Hagel’s performance as crucial.

The decision to replace Hagel has a definite echo of President Bush’s decision to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at roughly the same point in Bush’s tenure, but it is an ironic one. Whereas the Bush decision came in the context of a candid self-assessment of what the midterm rebuke might mean, the Obama decision has come in the context of a president who has refused to acknowledge that the midterm results are a rebuke of his policies and performance. Indeed, his response has been to double down on the very autocratic behaviors that contributed to his party’s decisive defeat.

That, of course, points to the heart of the matter. The United States is struggling in geopolitics right now because President Obama’s administration is struggling, and the administration is struggling primarily for reasons traced directly back to the president’s own choices. Pick your issue: the failure in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, the inability to check Russian President Vladimir Putin, the yawning ends-means gap in the defense budget, the fractious civil-military relations, the failure to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and so on. Regardless the issue, the chief weakness is not the performance of the staff but the decisions that could only have been made by the president. Of course, these are tough foreign policy problems and much of the difficulty can also be attributed to factors well beyond the control of the U.S. government. But to the extent that U.S. action or inaction is exacerbating the problem, those sins of omission and commission are primarily the president’s, not his staff’s.

It is unrealistic to expect the president to fire himself, so others have to play that sacrificial role. It should not be unrealistic, however, to expect the president to do a bit more soul-searching than has been evident to date, and also to realize who among his staff are the biggest problems. Settling on Hagel as his scapegoat raises questions about how thoroughgoing the president’s own assessment has been.

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