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Hagel Pushed Out Amid Concerns Over His Handling of Islamic State Fight

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is leaving the Obama administration after less than two years on the job amid concerns that he wasn’t up to the job of leading the Pentagon during its escalating war with the Islamic State. Read more from FP on the Secretary of Defense The Pentagon’s Invisible Man: Even the defense secretary ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is leaving the Obama administration after less than two years on the job amid concerns that he wasn’t up to the job of leading the Pentagon during its escalating war with the Islamic State.

Read more from FP on the Secretary of Defense

A senior administration official said that Hagel’s discussions with the White House over his own future began in October, when he "began speaking with the president about departing the administration given the natural post-midterms transition time."

The conversations had continued for the last few weeks, and President Barack Obama will announce Hagel’s resignation this morning at a White House event, the official said. Hagel will remain in office until a successor is named and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the official said.

The news of Hagel’s departure was first reported by the New York Times, which cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying that the emergence of threats from the Islamic State required a new set of skills than the ones that Hagel was brought on to manage.

Hagel’s possible resignation has been rumored for weeks, and speculation about a successor has long centered on the other names that had been bandied about before the former senator from Nebraska got the post: Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official who oversaw policy issues and would be the first female secretary of defense; Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and a former Army Ranger; and Ash Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense and a nuclear scientist, as possible candidates.

It’s not clear who among the potential candidates can claim to have expertise in dealing with terrorism-related threats.

Hagel’s departure follows significant losses in the just finished midterm congressional elections that resulted in Democrats losing their Senate majority to Republicans and amidst widespread concerns that the United States lacks a clear strategy to combat newly rising threats of terrorism in the Middle East.

Hagel, 68, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former Republican senator from Nebraska, joined the Obama administration in February 2013 mostly to oversee an end to the war in Afghanistan and manage a decline in the Defense Department’s footprint as budgets shrank.

But Hagel was faced with an array of challenges right from the moment he was nominated. He survived a brutal confirmation hearing with Senators of both parties questioning his stance on Israel as well as his views on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Hagel too made mistakes by misstating the Obama administration policy on Iran as one of "containment." He was confirmed on a fairly narrow margin of 58-41.

Once in office Hagel faced challenges ranging from transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay prison and the rise of the Islamic State to how to best manage the ongoing drawdown from Afghanistan and how many troops to send to Africa to help fight the Ebola crisis.

While personable and engaging in private conversations, Hagel’s public performances lacked focus and were often dull, especially compared with Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with whom the defense secretary often appeared together. He also contradicted the White House’s public line about the Islamic State by describing them as an unprecedented threat just as the administration was likening them to a junior varsity basketball team.

Despite criticism that he was not the man for the moment, in recent weeks Hagel’s aides have said that he wrote a memo to White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice criticizing the administration’s policy on Syria, which has largely failed to halt the Islamic State’s advances. Little is known about the precise contents of that letter, but critics of the White House’s handling of the crisis have bashed the president for last year threatening to punish Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad with airstrikes for using chemical weapons against his own people, only to back off; overruling his own cabinet about arming the moderate Syrian opposition; and, most recently, entering into a de facto alliance with Assad against the Islamic State.

Still, the administration official tried to paint as positive a portrait of Hagel’s tenure as possible, arguing that "over nearly two years, Secretary Hagel has been a steady hand, guiding our military through this transition, and helping us respond to challenges from ISIL to Ebola."

Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam