War Stories

Chuck Out

Why Chuck Hagel didn’t last long at the Pentagon. 

The departure of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense has been greeted as a surprise, but it really shouldn’t have. President Obama nominated him for the job, in January 2013, as the right man to watch over the winding down of two wars and the drawdown of the defense budget. Now, with the gearing up of U.S. involvement in new, complex conflicts, and the growing realization that policy is not among Hagel’s strong suits, it does seem time for him to go.

In retrospect, the appointment was ill-calculated from the start. Obama may have thought that Hagel’s standing as a Republican senator would help shield him from partisan attacks for cutting the budget. But, as it turned out, Hagel’s colleagues saw him as a RINO—Republican in name only. He’d criticized George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq, the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, and the outsized power of what he once called “the Jewish lobby.” And, early on, he’d advised and befriended Barack Obama. To many Republican senators, these things were all unforgivable.

His confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee were brutal, with Sen. John McCain trashing him for his views on Iraq. The committee’s session to vote on the nomination was more hair-raising still, with Sens. Ted Cruz and James Inhofe accusing him of “cozying” up with terrorists. Hagel passed on a straight party-line vote; the Senate confirmed him, with the support of just four Republicans.

Obama also figured that Hagel’s military record, as an enlisted man who won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, might further legitimize his budget cuts and form a bond with the soldiers returning from battle. But as a political matter, Hagel needed much more to muster support from the senior officer corps, and he never solidified that.

Nor did he insinuate himself with the White House staff, where power is concentrated in this administration. That was due, in part, to the staff’s much-noted insularity; but it was also due to Hagel’s own failure to bring much to the table. When Robert Gates took a stand, it was clear that he had (or could rally) the Pentagon’s full support—and that, in any case, he had the acumen to push his views. No such glow surrounded Hagel.

A large measure of Hagel’s isolation and lack of authority is that Obama has come to rely on Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as both an adviser and the Pentagon’s main spokesman on strategies to deal with the crises of our day—ISIS, Ebola, Iran, even the pivot to the Pacific. By statute, the JCS chairman does serve as the president’s top military adviser; but the secretary of defense should be that adviser on military policy. Hagel did not fill that role.

One Pentagon official told me today that Hagel’s departure has been in the works for weeks, possibly months, awaiting only the aftermath of the midterm elections. A senior official in the administration said that a successor will be named in a matter of weeks. It’s a bit of a puzzle why Obama didn’t announce his nominee now. Perhaps he thinks the new secretary’s authority would be enhanced if his or her confirmation were left up to the next Senate.

In any case, the game of predicting Hagel’s successor has already begun. Names on the guessing-list include Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy and a leading light in the national security think-tank world; Ashton Carter, former deputy secretary of defense; Jack Reed, Democratic senator from Rhode Island and former Army Ranger; and Carl Levin, longtime Democratic senator and chairman of the armed services committee.

If I had to guess from among this pack, I’d go with Flournoy. Carter has a background in technology and was known mainly as a weapons-procurement manager during his time in the Pentagon—not the best match for today’s needs. Reed might be a strong choice and a smooth ride through the confirmation process, but why would Obama want to remove a veteran Democrat from the Senate? Levin seems a likelier choice, given his bona fides as a defense expert, his popularity on Capitol Hill, and the fact that he’s losing his chairmanship in January after deciding not to run for re-election.*

Michèle Flournoy participates in a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2014
Michèle Flournoy participates in a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 2014.

Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

As for Flournoy, she’s very smart, knows all the national security issues cold, and is thoroughly familiar with Pentagon politics. She’s also widely respected within the military, and an Obama loyalist who’s disagreed with some of his policies. As a past undersecretary of defense for policy, she is already the highest-ranking woman to  ever serve in the Pentagon. Gaining the top spot would break the building’s ultimate ceiling. Would Senate Republicans want to worsen their standing with women by going after her with knives?

Correction, Nov. 24, 2014: This article originally misstated that Sen. Carl Levin decided not to run for re-election in 2016. He decided not to run for re-election in 2014 (Return.)