Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, D.C. is all a twitter with news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been fired, er, asked to step down, er, initiated talks about leaving. It has long been a staple of Washington news reporting (read, gossip) that Hagel simply wasn’t up to the job, either intellectually or physically. Seeing him at various events in person, he looked perpetually exhausted and distant, while damning rumors of his lack of attention to the job could be heard in numerous corners. One high-level source with direct knowledge once told me that Hagel was disengaged in his morning briefings, and when thick briefing papers were presented to him, he would thumb through them and push them aside, reportedly saying things like, “I can’t read this, just tell me what it says.” Those who watched carefully his underwhelming Senate confirmation hearings knew that this was not a good choice for one of the most demanding jobs in government.
The New York Times piece breaking the news about Hagel’s departure peddles the White House line that this is just a boring administrative shuffle:
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 [emphasis added].
The truth of course, is that, as the Times put it, Hagel “struggled to inspire confidence,” code that he was one of the least respected defense secretaries in recent memory.
Deeper into the Times piece, though, is a much bigger, and more concerning issue — more evidence of the damage that occurs when a president surrounds himself with those he knows he can dominate:
But several of Mr. Obama’s top advisers over the past few months have also acknowledged privately that the president did not want another high-profile defense secretary in the mold of Mr. Gates . . .
So, as the threats from Russia, China, and the Islamic State developed over the past two years, the president was more concerned about his image as the smartest man in the room and who would brook no opposition to his view of the world. A view, one might add, that shows remarkably little evolution during his six years as president.
Thus, at a time of extraordinary global danger, America was saddled with a defense secretary not respected by his president, not expected to bring a sharp intellectual scalpel to the challenges of the day, and one who simply wasn’t up for the job. Early, private reports from inside the Pentagon indicate a sigh of relief, since the thought is it can’t get any worse.