The New York Times revealed this morning that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been pressured out, in the first major personnel move following the historic defeat for the President during the midterm elections. The broader background behind Hagel’s exit is not only the recent defeat, but also the ongoing setbacks to the Administration’s foreign policy worldwide. As the Times reports:
The officials described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.
But now “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity… Mr. 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.
Reports in sources such as Politico already suggest that Susan Rice and other Administration insiders were the ones applying the “pressure” that forced Hagel out the door. If this is true, it suggests that the President has responded to a midterm election in which the country expressed a desire to see more outside, and specifically more Republican input, on policy by closing ranks and expelling the last major Republican member of his cabinet. (VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, a Republican, remains; this post does not carry the Secretary of Defense’s national security importance.) All three of the names mooted by the Times as possible replacements for Hagel—Michele Flournoy, Sen. Jack Reed (D., RI), and Ashton B. Carter—come from the President’s own party.
We’ve written that the President needs to seek more adversarial counsel, as concerns about a White House in bunker mode grow. If the President had concerns about Hagel’s ability to lead as the country faces new foreign policy challenges, replacing him was his duty. Choosing Hagel’s successor will be the second half of that responsibility, and will go some way toward setting the tone for the President’s last two years in office.