White House Kicks Hagel on His Way Out the Door

Posted: Nov 25, 2014 3:12 PM
White House Kicks Hagel on His Way Out the Door

The White House announced the effective firing of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Monday, pulling the plug on the former Senator's relatively brief stint at the Pentagon. Hagel's journey at DOD began with an embarrassingly poor performance during his tumultuous confirmation hearings, and has ended in a fairly ignominious farewell.  Fox News' Howard Kurtz notes that the spin and leak war is very much underway, with 'senior administration officials' telling reporters that President Obama had lost confidence in his Defense Secretary.  But Sen. John McCain is hearing different things:

“Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz., who is slated to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, said that Hagel ‘was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process,’ citing ‘excessive micro-management’ on the part of the White House. “McCain noted that Hagel’s predecessors as defense secretary — Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta — had both likewise complained in their memoirs about excessive political interference from White House aides.”

A Politico story quotes officials calling Hagel's departure "superficial," and a political attempt to convince dissatisfied Americans that the White House is engaging in a post-election, national security-focused shake up. "This is not a shake-up because Hagel never really had a voice in policy discussions anyway," one said.  The same Politico piece suggests that Hagel's foot-dragging on Gitmo detainees -- which reportedly fed his ongoing internal conflict with National Security Adviser Susan Rice -- may have contributed to his exit from the West Wing's good graces:

In the eyes of Obama aides, Hagel could be maddeningly slow to respond to policy directives from the White House. When Obama began pushing last year to reinvigorate the process of closing the Guantanamo detention camp, White House aides repeatedly urged Hagel to sign off on transfers of detainees who had long been cleared for release. Yet for months, the defense secretary refused to sign certifications that the future threat posed by the prisoners could be adequately mitigated, according to a U.S. official. “This was not an insignificant source of friction,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “I can say definitively on this one it has been utterly public and unmistakeable in terms of the disconnect.” White House irritation with Hagel grew so intense that last May, Rice sent Hagel an extraordinary memo directing him to report every two weeks on progress toward transferring or releasing Guantanamo prisoners, the source said, discussing a directive first reported earlier this year by the New York Times. “He was the bottleneck,” said one advocate closely tracking the process. “He wasn’t signing off."

As others have rightly pointed out, Hagel did sign off on the most controversial Guantanamo relocations: Namely, the (illegal) release of five high-ranking Taliban commanders in exchange for captured US soldier and alleged deserter Bowe Bergdahl.  When Obama endured a blitzkrieg of criticism over the deal, the White House tried to pawn the blame off onto Hagel.  Hagel was apparently uncomfortable blindly green-lighting the release of untold numbers of jihadists, then he contradicted the White House's messaging on ISIS by calling the terrorist fighting force an "imminent threat" to US interests.  Remember, Hagel was brought in to be the Republican face of Obama's unwinding of wars and defense cuts; perhaps he got the axe because he proved to be, in some respects, too hawkish.  At the very least, according to the McCain quote above, Hagel grew disillusioned with excessive interference from the hyper-political White House.  Now that administration officials are referring to Hagel as "low-hanging fruit" to be plucked (again, not as part of any meaningful shake-up), it seems as though the White House is guaranteeing negative reviews from Obama's third consecutive Defense Secretary.  Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have each issued stark criticisms of the administration in which they served.  Which brings us back to this weeks-old question from Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank:

Perhaps it's some combination of Obama's out-of-his-depth weakness, his relentlessly political mentality, his team's micromanagement, his propensity for blame, and his apparent inability to earn personal respect from some of his key principals.

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