The Doormat Gets Shown the Door

Chuck Hagel wasn't a genius. But he got a bum rap for being exactly the secretary of defense that Obama wanted -- until he wasn't.

Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images
Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images
Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images

Goodbye, Chuck Hagel: We hardly knew ye!

Perhaps there wasn't much to know. Or perhaps you contain hidden depths. Who can say? For almost two years, you seemed barely there, an irascible half-presence in the Pentagon's E ring. Soon you won't be there at all, and no one will much notice.

For what it's worth, Chuck, I think you got a bum rap. President Obama nominated you to be secretary of defense because he wanted a policy nonentity, and that's exactly what he got. He wanted doormat, and you gave him doormat.

Goodbye, Chuck Hagel: We hardly knew ye!

Perhaps there wasn’t much to know. Or perhaps you contain hidden depths. Who can say? For almost two years, you seemed barely there, an irascible half-presence in the Pentagon’s E ring. Soon you won’t be there at all, and no one will much notice.

For what it’s worth, Chuck, I think you got a bum rap. President Obama nominated you to be secretary of defense because he wanted a policy nonentity, and that’s exactly what he got. He wanted doormat, and you gave him doormat.

What went wrong? True, doormats don’t win elections, but they don’t lose them either. Chuck, the midterms weren’t your fault.

And true, U.S. "national security policy … has too often been incoherent and shifting," as the New York Times‘ editorial board put it this week, but that’s not your fault either. U.S. national security policy was incoherent long before you first passed through the Pentagon’s River Entrance.

Your sole claim to fame beyond your Vietnam War service was your opposition to the war in Iraq, which made you unpopular with your fellow Republicans and something of a hero to Democrats tired of wandering in the national security wilderness. But opposing the same "dumb war" ultimately opposed by most serious military and defense thinkers didn’t make you a policy genius — it just made you less dumb than the Iraq War’s neocon architects. (Well, only marginally less dumb, since you supported the war before you opposed it).

When you were first nominated in 2012, many in the press convinced themselves that you were some sort of heroic closet Democrat, a virtual left-wing pacifist who just happened to have accidentally dressed in wolf’s clothing. They were wrong. Your Iraq War opposition aside, you were basically a standard-issue Republican for most of your political career. You tossed out a few anti-gay slurs; you backed prayer in public schools; you opposed abortion and gun control; you favored George W. Bush’s tax cuts. In short, you were a "go along to get along" Republican who broke from your party on only one issue, and then only when the Iraq War had already become a liability for the GOP.

But I’ll give you this: You didn’t pretend to be anyone but who you were. If some Democrats had stars in their eyes when they looked at you, you weren’t the one who put them there. On the contrary. You made no claims to policy genius and you made it clear you were no threat to anyone, and this went down well with a White House that doesn’t care for those who step out of line.

So you became secretary of defense, and for nearly two years you bumbled along, doing no harm and letting others — mainly Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — take the lead in meetings, congressional hearings, and policy debates.

How could such a nonentity get fired?

Maybe your very invisibility got on the president’s nerves. You know the old ditty:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today

I wish, I wish he’d go away…

People who are not really there can be kind of annoying, you know? They waste space.

Or maybe it was something else. Maybe when you finally decided to make some helpful noise, you were a little too noisy. The Islamic State was an "imminent threat to every interest we have … beyond anything that we’ve seen," you insisted at an August press briefing at the Pentagon.

Whoops. Wrong thing to say when everyone else was trying to sound all measured and statesman-like. General Dempsey must have shot you a dampening look, because you trailed off sadly: "So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and — and — and get ready.’

The truth is, you just couldn’t win. When you stayed in the shadows and let Dempsey do the talking, you were accused of being overly deferential to the military. White House staff wanted you to be their doormat, not the military’s. But when you stepped out on your own — when the internal contradictions in the administration’s national security policy became too much even for you, and you penned a snappy internal critique of the administration’s Syria policy — everyone got mad at you.

In the end, though, you did the nation a service. If nothing else, your impending departure highlights once and for all the fact that there’s just no pleasing this White House. Gates? Too strong. Panetta? Not serious enough. Hagel? Too weak.

Even Goldilocks eventually found some porridge she was willing to swallow. Not so with this White House.

No surprise that two of the top contenders to fill your soon-to-be empty post, former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed, took only hours to declare firmly that they had no desire to become the replacement doormat — or the next sacrificial lamb.

If President Obama still had the good sense he displayed on the campaign trail in 2008, he’d see this as an occasion to take a hard look in the mirror. House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon got it right when he quipped, "The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth secretary of defense. When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them, or is it me?’"

Chuck Hagel, go in peace.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.