Earlier this year, I went to the Pentagon to have lunch with Chuck Hagel, whom I had known for many years. Because of his packed schedule the lunch was arranged for 11:30 AM, and was to last for forty-five minutes. As we got talking, he let the time slip for another ten minutes and then politely excused himself, explaining that he simply had to move on to the next appointment—a courtesy meeting with the Defense Minister of Peru. The Middle East was falling apart and countries where the US was supposed to be winding down its military commitments were looking anything but ready for stability. The Veterans Administration; sexual exploitation of women in the military; Russian adventurism in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine; decaying weapons; commanders at US nuclear facilities found to be not exactly alert on the job; missile tests by North Korea; mindless across-the-board budget cuts imposed by Congress; coups in Africa; endless demands and requests from legislators; congressional Republicans having their festival of Benghazi hearings–-and the secretary of defense had a scheduled courtesy meeting with the defense minister of Peru. Now, the US and Peru have enjoyed a close working relationsip and the minister was not to be offended; moreover during his previous tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hagel had been visited by and took time for officials from all over the world and such courtesy continued to be expected.
While I had come to admire Hagel as a thoughtful man, there’s a question of whether anyone can make the leap from a senator’s office—with an average staff size of 34 people, to the Pentagon, the world’s largest institution, which employs about 26,000 personnel on site, plus about a half million overseas, plus an active military of about 1.5 million men and women. In general, transitions from Capitol Hill to a cabinet office, in either party, haven’t been markedly successful. The Pentagon has been a sinkhole of failures.
Irrespective of all that, there’ve been the dramatic changes from the job that Hagel came to do to and the one that it has become. He came to the office with the assignment of presiding over the ending of two wars, yet each has been expanded (Iraq) or extended (Afghanistan, after thirteen years). Onto which has been grafted the most elusive and formidable of tasks: defeating the hyper-terrorist group ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Even the administration figures who preside over it are aware that the effort in Syria might not succeed: the “moderate opposition” to the Assad regime has been weakened and infiltrated to the point where it barely exists as a force; the US has no real allies on the ground, other than some Kurd forces, who aren’t as strong there as they are in Iraq. It’s been a pipe dream to think that Turkey would want to get involved in any way that might help Bashir al-Assad. The White House is stuck in a policy that has very little chance of working, putting the president and his national security aides in real peril. And Chuck Hagel, who watched all this with dismay, became the odd man out.
If its interests in an international situation aren’t great enough or worth the cost, the US can cut its losses and walk away. Or not even try. We’re not trying to fix failed African states—not Somalia (tried that, disastrously) or Congo. States, with their own long histories, have a way of being intractable to being fixed by outsiders—a lesson yet to be thoroughly absorbed by this administration. But even if the president wanted to disengage from Syria, says a senior adviser, “His hands are largely tied because of the brutal executions by ISIS.” It’s considered quite likely that ISIS will continue the beheadings; no one is sure whether the point is to provoke the US into a difficult war, but that’s the effect. A participant in the discussions of US policy in the Middle East says, “As long as ISIS is beheading Americans there’s no way the president can stand up and say that Syria isn’t our problem.” This is an assumption, not a fact.
Hagel, who came from the now virtually defunct moderate wing of the Republican party, openly broke with his fellow party members and said he regretted his vote for the Iraq War, in 2002. In 2007 he voted with Senate Democrats to call for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq within 120 days, and in 2011, after he left the Senate, he said it was time to find an exit from Afghanistan. Hagel’s mentality matches that of Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell: careful and loath to engage in military force; don’t venture where you don’t know what you’re getting into (which could largely characterize our ventures in the Middle East). This happened also to be the philosophy of Barack Obama.
Hagel has a deliberative mind, one likely to take in more considerations than that of the typical pol. He’s been ambitious—he’d coveted a cabinet position from the outset of the Obama administration, having been selected by candidate Obama as one of two companions for his pre-election trip to Afghanistan and Iraq (the other was Jack Reed, and these choices spoke well of Obama). In the Senate, Hagel could wield a knife with the best of them—but he wasn’t a relentless type. He also wasn’t a fire-in-the-belly politician. Seriously considering running for the presidency in 2008, he called a press conference in which he announced, to a widespread thud, that he hadn’t yet made up his mind. Yet Hagel remained a respected figure in Washington and in foreign capitals.
Though Hagel and Obama thought quite alike and respected each other, Hagel was probably not cut out for the Obama administration, or for what it’s evolved into. Though Hagel had, and used, a direct line to Obama—calling in frustration after a larger meeting where he felt he hadn’t been listened to, and over time largely wasn’t, Obama wasn’t as welcoming of diverse voices as he’d first indicated he would be. Hagel was never one to blend quietly into the tapestry. He prided himself in being his own man, and he liked to talk about his opinions—to the press and the public as well as on the Senate floor. Hagel wasn’t destined to be a docile member of an administration over which the White House exercises the tightest control in memory—especially one in which policy was made by a small group in the White House headed by a remote president who doesn’t care for turbulence and who is capable of changing policy on a dime. In particular, defense policy has time and again lurched head-snappingly from firm decision to its reverse. Bit by bit, Hagel saw policy in the Middle East move in the opposite direction of what he’d understood was his assignment and on which he and the president had once agreed.
Hagel particularly chafed at the White House’s governing style on national security policy. He believed—and in this he was far from alone within and outside the administration—that national security adviser Susan Rice is in over her head. And Rice’s admittedly abrasive style put off a large number of people. But she’s been close to the president from the days of the 2008 campaign, and that appears to be what matters most to him. Initiatives, and not just in security policy, would get clogged up at the White House in task forces to study them. The NSC, which was originally a modest-sized organization set up to coordinate among the relevant cabinet departments, has metastasized into a staff of about four hundred people and under the Obama administration actually makes foreign and defense policy. A cabinet office has traditionally been an august position (if somewhat faded)—being called “Mr. Secretary” or “Madame Secretary” counts for a lot in Washington, and defense is one of the top ones. The Obama White House’s famous “micro-management” of the Departments—treating Cabinet officers as junior assistants, sometimes the last to know of a change in policy, would particularly trouble a person of pride, not to mention one who has held elective office. Hagel made no secret of his frustration.
We’ve seen past administrations in big trouble throw overboard an inconvenient major figure. Whether it was the right one has always been a question. So was the matter of how much difference the move actually made in improving the fortunes of the said administration. Most of the time a White House staff hasn’t been as eager as this one to make it clear, right away, that the officer didn’t resign but was pushed out. This is not a good sign. All the talk coming out of the White House that Hagel’s confirmation performance is still a problem and other complaints are mainly padding on a ruthless if necessary decision—necessary in the eyes of the president and his very closest aides. But this won’t help them fix their terrible problems in Iraq and Syria and—as is increasingly clear—Afghanistan. The senior adviser said to me Monday evening: “If Hagel had agreed with the White House he wouldn’t have been fired.”