President Obama tapped Chuck Hagel as defense secretary because he wanted someone who would quietly implement the administration’s policy, avoid controversy and promote no big, sweeping ideas.
Hagel was forced to resign Monday for being exactly that defense secretary.
Hagel didn’t make big mistakes. Nor had he lost the confidence of the uniformed military. But he often seemed lost or overly deferential to his generals in top-level White House strategy meetings, especially those focused on the battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, senior administration officials said.
“I could never tell what his opinion was on anything,” said a senior administration official involved in national security policy. “He’d never speak. . . . The key comment, the insightful approach — that never came out of him.”
Instead, Hagel worked behind the scenes to lessen the impact of budget cuts on the military’s ability to fight future wars and on the families of those in uniform. Obama praised Hagel on Monday for pushing to make sure that troops received pay raises and the housing, health care and child care they needed.
“He understands our men and women like few others, because he stood where they stood,” Obama said of Hagel, who served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam. “He’s been in the dirt and he’s been in the muck. And that’s established a special bond.”
In recent months, though, as the White House groped toward a policy to confront the Islamic State, Obama decided that he needed a defense secretary who was more at ease in the White House Situation Room than with grunts in the field.
“Hagel tried to play a behind-the-scenes role on tough issues — the [budget cuts], sexual assault, ending two wars,” said Vikram Singh, a former top Pentagon official and a vice president at the Center for American Progress. “He didn’t want to be a larger-than-life secretary.”
His departure isn’t likely to lead to big changes in Iraq and Syria, where the president recently doubled the number of U.S. military advisers, or in Afghanistan, where Obama seems committed to ending the war. Nor is it likely to lead to warmer relations with Congress, as happened when Donald H. Rumsfeld was fired as defense secretary by President George W. Bush in 2006 and replaced by Robert M. Gates, who was widely hailed as his polar opposite.
“No one is going to be hailed to be the anti-Hagel,” said Douglas Ollivant, a retired Army officer and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “No one hates Hagel.”
Instead of taking pressure off the president, it’s likely that the confirmation process for Hagel’s replacement will generate more political headaches in the near term. Those hearings should give the president’s critics, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the future Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, a big stage to launch broad attacks on the president’s policies in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine.
The next defense secretary will also have to wrestle with a military strategy in Iraq and Syria that has halted Islamic State advances but has been slow to reverse the group’s big gains from the summer.
Inside the Pentagon, there’s little consensus on the best way forward. Some military officials have complained that the strategy is too timid and that the president’s restrictions on using U.S. ground forces have hamstrung their efforts. A retired four-star general who served earlier in the Obama presidency derided the missions in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as “resourced to the absolute minimum levels for any chance of success. It’s very frustrating.”
But other top U.S. generals have in recent weeks balked at suggestions from the White House that the air campaign against Islamic State rebels be widened to cities such as Aleppo, Syria, arguing that such an effort would require the destruction of Syrian air defenses and unnecessarily broaden the conflict.
“The military resisted attacks on Aleppo,” a senior administration official said. ‘They argued it was mission creep and that they lacked the resources.”
There’s also broad dissatisfaction among the Pentagon’s service chiefs over deep cuts imposed on the military by the White House and Congress through a process known as sequestration. The next defense secretary will face a major challenge in controlling the chiefs as they testify before an increasingly hostile Congress.
Hagel’s replacement, meanwhile, will also have to grapple with a hands-on White House that has, at times, infuriated his predecessors and the Pentagon brass with its management style.
“There is teeth-gnashing over micromanagement,” a senior defense official said. “Relations have not been great.”
Under Obama, the National Security Council has delved into the nitty-gritty of shaping war policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan, sometimes subjecting senior officials to hours of meetings to reach incremental decisions.
Earlier this year, the decision on how many U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan in 2015 was the subject of 14 meetings of NSC deputies, four gatherings involving Cabinet secretaries and other NSC “principals,” and two NSC sessions with the president, according to a former senior administration official.
The consequence of those meetings was to pare back the military’s request by just 700 troops — from 10,500 to 9,800.
“The decision-making takes too long,” the retired four-star general said.
White House officials regularly call commanders in Afghanistan to gauge their thinking on the progress of the war and their future troop needs. Those calls were a particular source of irritation to Gates, who said he tried to squelch them during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In a speech this month at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, he recalled being shocked to discover that a direct telephone line to the White House had been installed in the Afghanistan headquarters of the elite Joint Special Operations Command.
“I had them tear it out while I was standing there,” Gates said. “And I told the commanders, ‘You get a call from the White House, you tell them to go to hell and call me.’ ”
Since then, the calls to field commanders have resumed, defense officials said.