U.S. Defense Chief Hagel to Step Down, Under Pressure From Obama

Hagel has served as Secretary of Defense since February 2013; resignation comes as President Obama's national security team has been battered by multiple foreign policy crises.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor, Newport, Sept. 5, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor, Newport, Sept. 5, 2014.Credit: AP

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel handed in his resignation on Monday, apparently under pressure from President Barack Obama. He will remain in his post until Obama appoints a replacement.

Obama officially announced Hagel's resignation in a press conference on Monday afternoon, and praised the outgoing defense secretary for over six decades of dedication to American security. He said that Hagel had told him last month that it was time to end his role as defense secretary.

Obama also said that Hagel had always been straight and candid with his advice and counsel, and "always given it to me straight."

Israel's defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, said following the announcement that Hagel was a "true friend" and that he wished him the best of luck.

Hagel is the first senior Obama adviser to leave the administration following the sweeping losses for Obama's party in the midterm elections. It also comes as the president's national security team has been battered by multiple foreign policy crises, include the rise of the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Administration officials said that Obama made the decision to remove Hagel, the sole Republican on his national security team, last Friday after a series of meetings between the two men over the past two weeks.

The officials characterized the decision as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State will require different skills from those that Hagel, who often struggled to articulate a clear viewpoint and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary, was brought in to employ.

Hagel, a Republican and a combat veteran who was skeptical about the Iraq War, came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestrations.

Now, however, the U.S. military is back on a war footing, although it is a modified one. Some 3,000 U.S. troops are being deployed in Iraq to help the Iraqi military fight the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, even as the administration struggles to come up with, and articulate, a coherent strategy to defeat the group in both Iraq and Syria.

“The next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity. He insisted that Hagel was not fired, saying that he 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.

But Hagel’s aides had maintained in recent weeks that he expected to serve the full four years as defense secretary. His removal appears to be an effort by the White House to show that it is sensitive to critics who have pointed to stumbles in the government’s early response to several national security issues, including the Ebola crisis and the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Even before the announcement of Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense; Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

A respected former senator who struck a friendship with Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq War from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists. Senior administration officials have characterized him as quiet during Cabinet meetings; Hagel’s defenders said that he waited until he was alone with the president before sharing his views, the better to avoid leaks.

Whatever the case, Hagel struggled to fit in with Obama’s close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration after a bruising confirmation fight among his old Senate colleagues, during which he was criticized for seeming tentative in his responses to sharp questions.

He never really shed that pall after arriving at the Pentagon, and in the past few months he has largely ceded the stage to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who officials said initially won the confidence of Obama with his recommendation of military action against the Islamic State.

In Hagel’s less than two years on the job, his detractors said he struggled to inspire confidence at the Pentagon in the manner of his predecessors, especially Robert Gates. But several of 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 Gates, who went on to write a memoir of his years with Obama in which he sharply criticized the president. Hagel, they said, in many ways was exactly the kind of Defense Secretary whom the president, after battling the military during his first term, wanted.

Hagel, for his part, spent his time on the job largely carrying out Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back U.S. troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback. He did manage to inspire loyalty among enlisted soldiers and often seemed at his most confident when talking to troops or sharing wartime experiences as a Vietnam veteran.

But Hagel has often had problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner, and has sometimes left reporters struggling to describe what he has said in news conferences. In his side-by-side appearances with both Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the first former enlisted combat soldier to be defense secretary, has often been upstaged.

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Recent questions about Hagel's future at the Pentagon were prompted in part by his decision to postpone a long-planned trip this month to Vietnam. At the time, officials said he needed to remain in Washington for congressional consultations, but that did not stop speculation that the White House might be looking for a replacement for the final two years of Obama's term.

Just last week Hagel was asked about the speculation during an interview on the Charlie Rose show. He was asked whether he's concerned by the speculation.

"No. First of all, I serve at the pleasure of the president," Hagel said. "I`m immensely grateful for the opportunity I`ve had the last two years to work every day for the country and for the men and women who serve this country. I don`t get up in the morning and worry about my job. It`s not unusual by the way, to change teams at different times."

Hagel served in the Vietnam War and received two Purple Hearts.

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