When a public official departs a job prematurely, it’s never easy to pin down the truth about why it is happening -- although if the excuse is “wanting to spend more time with my family,” it is safe to assume the impetus for the departure involves a hooker, sex in a bathroom stall or a soon-to-be-revealed secret stash of money.
None of those embarrassing elements is the cause of Hagel being cast adrift. This looks like a fairly classic case of a Cabinet secretary being shut out of the inner circle and finally figuring out it is time to go.
Gleaning a probable scenario from the most informed first-day reporting, it appears that Hagel initiated a status-of-job discussion with the president several weeks ago. A mutual decision was reached that it would be best to part ways. Most observers are saying Hagel’s exit was a foregone conclusion because, as one Senate source told Politico, “he started to no longer be a yes-man.”
In his formal announcement of the news, with Hagel standing at his side, the president said he highly appreciated the Defense secretary’s willingness to give him straight talk. So, what was not appreciated? Apparently, several things.
Hagel got a bad start in his confirmation hearings two years ago, giving awkward testimony that allowed Republican opponents of the administration to drag out the process. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, ended up winning approval with only four of his ex-GOP colleagues voting to confirm him.
Hagel’s lack of public eloquence continued as he underperformed as a spokesman for administration policies. Over time, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eclipsed Hagel as the key spokesman on defense issues.
Obama brought Hagel in as his third Defense secretary to help cut the military budget and bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that there has been an about-face, with troops trickling back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State and a mini-troop-surge in the works for Afghanistan, Hagel no longer seems to be the right guy for the job.
Underlying all of this, though, seems to be the tendency of this administration to keep all the big decisions on foreign policy in the hands of a tiny circle inside the White House. That circle includes the president, national security advisor Susan Rice and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough who, before he took over running the White House in 2013, was deputy national security advisor. Beyond those three, not too many others are let into the cozy club of decision-makers and Hagel has not been one of them.
One foreign policy expert told NBC news that Hagel “had a crappy relationship with Susan Rice.” Hagel surely did not help that relationship by being a private critic of the administration’s internally dissonant strategy in Syria and Iraq (some of that straight talk the president claimed to value), because Rice is a key architect of that strategy.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters he was very aware of Hagel’s frustrations with White House micro-management. Neither McCain nor Hagel is the first to express concern about the president sharing so many important decisions with so few people. And Obama is not the first president to show this inclination. Presidents have grown ever more reluctant to dilute their immense power in foreign policy, at least since Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, kept Secretary of State William Rogers out of the loop during Nixon’s first term.
Obama seems strongly inclined to rely on just a small group of advisors whom he knows well and can trust not to split off to write tell-all memoirs. That may be understandable, but it may not be wise. A president needs to hear dissent and consider alternative options. President George W. Bush cooked up a war with Iraq mostly on the advice of three men -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- and his own national security advisor, another woman named Rice (Condoleezza). If ever there was need of a dissenting voice, it was then.
Questions about excessive White House micro-managing are sure to come up in the Senate hearings for Hagel’s successor. Republicans will undoubtedly grandstand on the issue, but that does not mean the questions won’t be worth asking.