Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s tenure was over, in some ways, before it began. The doubts that hounded him out of office on Monday surfaced for the first time during Hagel’s lackluster and often unconvincing appearances at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings that preceded his appointment. Given that Hagel’s harsh questioning was mainly driven by right-wing opposition to his supposedly anti-Israel views, it is no small irony that the Israeli defense establishment, with which Hagel maintained excellent ties, may be the most sorry to see him go.
The hesitancy and lack of rhetorical skills that were on display at Hagel’s hearings in late 2012 elicited dismay in the White House, at the Pentagon and among senior Democratic senators. His appointment was ultimately approved by virtue of a partisan showdown between the Democratic majority and the Republican minority, but doubts lingered. When America’s geopolitical situation changed for the worse, the initial skepticism came back to haunt him.
Hagel’s ability to manage the defense establishment at a time of deep budget cuts was a matter of open debate in Washington, but there was not much argument about his deficiencies in “selling” himself or his policies to the entrenched bureaucracy at the Defense Department, to the hyper-partisan advisers at the White House, to the top brass and the Joint Chiefs of Staffs or to an American public increasingly agitated by world events. One of the main lessons for the Democrats following their humiliating drubbing in the recent elections was Obama’s almost inexplicable failure to sell his policies to the U.S. public: Hagel, by this criterion, simply had to go.
Hagel was brought in to withdraw American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan at a time of severe budgetary cuts, but reality in the Middle East and elsewhere had other plans. Rightly or wrongly, through its own fault or that of others, the Pentagon has been perceived in recent months as being caught flat-footed by the rampage of Islamic State in Iraq, the survival of Bashar Assad in Syria, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the belligerency of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and more. Under these circumstances, the credibility of America’s veiled threat that “all options are on the table” against Iran also took a serious hit.
But rather than displaying the kind of resolute confidence and leadership needed in such dangerous times, Hagel often sounded like Chicken Little shouting “the sky is falling.” He told Charlie Rose only last week that ISIS is “an incredibly powerful new threat” to every interest we have, the likes of which have never been seen before. Hagel’s panicky overkill, which already rankled Obama back when he still referred to ISIS as “junior varsity” may have been the final nail in his coffin: better the momentary embarrassment of an appointment gone wrong, Obama’s advisers reasoned, than the long term damage incurred by a defense secretary who sometimes sounds as if he hasn’t convinced even himself that he can get the job done.
“We told you so,” jubilant Republicans said on Monday, with the exception of Hagel’s fellow Vietnam War veteran John McCain who pinned the blame exclusively on the White House. Some Republicans are planning on dragging out the confirmation of Hagel’s successor until the next Congress convenes in early January, when the Senate comes under complete GOP control. Along with the obstacles that the senators will now be able to mount on the way to a nuclear accord with Iran during the seven months’ extension announced in Vienna, the confirmation could figure prominently in Republican plans to retaliate for Obama’s unilateral moves on immigration last week.
Of course it will be hard to muster the kind of nasty opposition that Hagel was subjected to in late 2012, especially at a time of severe defense challenges around the globe. Former Under Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, who many consider to be the leading candidate to replace Hagel, was the favorite of many Republican conservatives as well as the pro-Israel lobby last time around as well. Her appointment, as well as that of some of the other candidates who are being mentioned, could elicit pressures on GOP senators to make an exception in the name of honor and country and to quickly approve Flournoy’s appointment – providing ample fodder, if any is needed, to those who believe that Israel controls Congress in the first place.