It's tempting to look at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation, apparently under pressure from the White House, as reflecting a struggle over war strategy in Iraq and Syria: Was Hagel axed because he wanted more aid to the Iraqi army or more help for Syrian rebels than the White House was ready to provide?
But I suspect that misses the point. There’s a policy debate roiling the Obama administration on how best to fight Islamic State, but Hagel wasn’t the biggest player in it. The problem was, if anything, the opposite: according to some officials, Hagel wasn’t an effective player at all.
That was his main problem -- and the root of much of the dissatisfaction that has been bubbling quietly for months.
Obama hired Hagel, a former U.S. senator, mostly to deal with Congress in a period that was guaranteed to be difficult -- because the administration was cutting defense budgets more deeply and withdrawing from Afghanistan more rapidly than most Republicans wanted.
Hagel, a Republican maverick, was supposed to be able to pacify the GOP, at least a little. But he never quite mastered that basic part of his job. His confirmation hearings were a train wreck; he stumbled on Iran policy and didn’t sound in command of his material. He did better when it came to defending the administration’s defense budget plans. But as the wars in Iraq and Syria muscled their way to the top of the agenda, he was pretty much a non-factor -- and members of Congress knew it. When Hagel and Secretary of State John F. Kerry appeared in hearings to defend Obama’s policies in Syria last year, senators largely ignored Hagel and addressed most of their questions to Kerry. When Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified earlier this month on the war in Iraq, it was the same story: some congressmen behaved as if Hagel weren’t in the room.
It couldn’t have helped that complaints from Hagel about White House “micromanagement” of military affairs and Syria policy leaked into news stories, apparently from Pentagon officials. That’s a good way for a Cabinet officer to turn the president’s closest advisors into adversaries bent on shoving him out of the way.
Which is pretty much what happened on Monday. Hagel, who had intended to keep his job for four years, said he had reached “a mutual decision” with his boss that he should leave after less than two. Now he can get to work on his memoirs, which should include a good chapter on Obama administration decision-making. It can go on the bookshelf right alongside the acerbic accounts of his predecessors, Robert M. Gates and Leon Panetta.