We Were Right about Chuck Hagel

by Daniel Foster

Here’s how the New York Times characterized the apparently semi-voluntary departure of Chuck Hagel from the Pentagon:

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and the struggles of his national security team to respond to an onslaught of global crises.

The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said.

The officials described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.

But now “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He insisted that Mr. Hagel was not fired, saying that the defense secretary initiated discussions about his future two weeks ago with the president, and that the two men mutually agreed that it was time for him to leave.

Two things about this.

First thing: POTUS’s first response to the “collapse” of the Democrats’ Senate majority in the midterms is to . . . fire the only Republican in his administration? That’s some tasty narrative-building, NYT.

Second thing: Told ya so.

When President Obama nominated Hagel to replace Leon Panetta — and Hagel proceeded to bumble his way through a confirmation process that nearly veered into catastrophe several times — there was a class of mainstream liberal Obama supporters, typified by Jon Chait, who couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

“Nominating Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense may be the oddest thing President Obama has ever done . . . and the most at odds with his general political character,” Chait wrote in one post. In another, he asked what “value-over-replacement” Hagel offered that could offset his controversial positions or second-rate intellect. In a third, he asked, “Why did Obama pick a candidate who was bound to create medium-size political headaches, yet brought him, relative to other possible nominees, no upside at all?”

“Hagel has said lots of things that Obama does not endorse, most of which Hagel himself no longer endorses, and some of which Hagel says he never believed at all,” Chait further protested. “Why should Obama have to defend positions he doesn’t agree with?” “Why waste political capital picking a fight that isn’t essential to any policy goals?”

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

To paraphrase Chait’s argument: Why should grandmother have grown such big ears while lying in bed? Why should she have grown such big eyes? Or such large hands? Or such a terrible big mouth? And how is pulling her cap down far over her face essential to any of grandmother’s policy goals?

Little Red Writing Chait is of course reasoning from the assumption that President Obama is moderate and wise, that he holds an undying ardor for Israel, and is manifestly determined to prevent a nuclear Iran, come hell or highly enriched uranium. It is not surprising that Chait should find it so trying to incorporate the president’s nomination of Hagel into a web of beliefs founded on such givens.

But as far as old Bill Occam and I are concerned, the most plausible explanation for why President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel is that . . . he wanted to. He thinks Chuck Hagel will be effective in administering the national-security policy of candidate Obama circa 2007 or 2008, and even of President Obama circa 2009. And that’s the policy President Obama is interested in pursuing in his second term. In other words, the reason President Obama’s defense nominee sucks is that President Obama’s defense policy sucks.

Doves and advocates of defense retrenchment on both left and right dug the Hagel nomination, because they, like POTUS, saw him primarily as an anti-war figure and a “realist.” But that reductive view gave Hagel both too little credit for the out-there-ness of his views, and far too much credit for his basic competence. Me again:

Where I see in Hagel a man whose ceiling as SecDef is ineffectual bumbler disliked by Pentagon lifers (and he has no floor), these nouveau-America-Firsters, left and right, see a man who will preside bravely over a gradual withdrawal of the United States from whole theaters of geopolitics — and they positively beam at the prospect. But they are missing something else. In their war fatigue, they have refused to reckon with Hagel’s record as a poor organizational leader and domineering, ineffective manager of people; with his amorphous views and tenuous grasp of policy detail; and with his unremarkable intellect.

They ignore all this because they naively and narrowly view Hagel as above all else an “anti-war” figure. . . . But you don’t have to be a neocon to know that the Venn diagram of U.S. and Israeli national interests overlaps, a lot. And you don’t have be a war-of-choice enthusiast to realize that it isn’t ideal when the man charged with planning for the unthinkable calls war with Iran unthinkable. And you don’t have to be a mandarin of the military-industrial complex to know that, “bloated” defense budgets aside, the point of maintaining the greatest destructive instrument in the history of man is to lessen the chance that we’ll ever have to use it.

The alternative to Hagel isn’t “more war” or the well-groomed love child of Dick Cheney and the Jewish Lobby. It’s basic strategic competence. It’s a man equal to the dangerous world he’ll be asked to stand sentry over….

The rationale provided by the official press instrument of the White House for Hagel’s ouster — that global threats “would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ” — vindicates both my reading of the president in 2013 and my judgment of his strategy, I think.

One last bit. Here’s how I put the dilemma, for unapologetic friends of American hegemony, of a Hagelized foreign policy:

Hagel’s foreign-policy views are clearly to the left of the president’s rhetoric for the last couple of years. That’s not even debatable. In practice, that will mean one of two things. Either the views expressed in Obama’s rhetoric of the last couple of years will continue to be the policy of the United States, in which case Hagel will be frustrated and constrained as defense secretary, and relegated to the role of mere bureaucrat-in-chief of the Pentagon. That, needless to say, does not appear to be his strong suit. The other possibility is that a second-term Obama will pursue a foreign policy closer to the one Hagel has avowed in speeches and writings over the last several years: a considerably smaller military, a net reduction in global power projection, especially in the most dangerous parts of the world, generous détente with Iran, skeptical neutrality or even hostility toward Israel, and so on. In that case, Hagel will be free to foolishly pursue his boss’s foolish vision.

Hagel can thus incompetently execute a decent strategy or competently execute an indecent one.

Again, I can’t help but notice how correct I was. POTUS gave Hagel two years to competently execute this indecent strategy. The world had other ideas. So here’s to hoping Hagel’s ouster marks the return of a decent strategy, and someone competent to execute it. 

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