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Chuck Hagel Was the Defense Secretary the White House Wanted—Then Obama Fired Him for It

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In the rush of media analysis about Chuck Hagel's ouster Monday, much has been made of the secretary of defense's Syria memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, in which he allegedly criticized Obama's policy on the Islamic State. In fact, according to sources familiar with the memo, it was a rather banal affair—and that banality, rather than any offense given, better characterizes Hagel's tenure and the reasons for his firing.

If anything, Hagel was deferential to the White House on matters of policy to the point of being almost completely disengaged. In part, according to one former defense official, he saw his role not as a driver of policy—which infuriated the policy people in the Pentagon—but as someone who was hired to manage the sequestration cuts and the process of thousands of U.S. troops coming home. That's what he did. Sometimes, he paid too much attention to it, like the time he spent three days obsessing over whether the Department of Defense would purchase shoes made in Maine, as the senators from Maine wanted, or somewhere else. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry, who goes off script and contradicts the White House, Hagel dutifully carried out his assignments. The White House said it was going to pivot to Asia, so Hagel went to Asia (many times) and read the paper put in front of him. When he disagreed with the president, he did so in private, which could not have been unappreciated in a White House increasingly obsessed with messaging—and burned by past Cabinet secretaries' stinging memoirs.

In other words, the White House got exactly the kind of secretary of defense it wanted—and then fired him.

Other sources, who asked not to be quoted, argue that the criticism leveled at Hagel—who, they admit, was "underperforming"—is contradictory in another sense: If Hagel was so unengaged in policy and so silent in Cabinet meetings, why is he being fired for the policy's failures? "I can't really think of the really big problems you can lay at his feet," says one administration official. "Syria? That's not his. The DoD was retrograde on Syria, but the White House wanted it that way." One former national security official says, "He didn't own anything."

Hagel never found his groove, many say, and nowhere was that more evident than in the bureaucratic maneuvering required of the job. On a trip to Asia in August 2013 (described here by Reid Cherlin), Hagel found himself working around the clock: meetings during the day, at night, fevered deliberations over whether to retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for using chemical weapons. In the end, Obama took a walk with his chief of staff, and decided to seek unobtainable congressional approval. Only then did he call Hagel to tell him about the decision. 

Then there was the palpable friction between Hagel and Rice. "She did not hold him in very high regard," says one Pentagon official. Many others said they heard that it was this tension that drove Hagel out: If someone needed to be fired for a failing policy, it wasn't going to be Rice. "It seems clear that there was significant friction between him and Susan Rice," says Heather Hurlburt, a program director at the New America Foundation. "If you look at feuds between cabinet secretaries and national security advisors, the national security advisor generally wins because it’s who the president personally trusts."

All of this adds up to a rather strange way to address the criticism leveled at the administration's foreign policy: If you fire the guy least responsible for it, it's essentially a doubling down on what you're already doing, thereby denying there's a problem with it.

"Hagel was a lackluster secretary of defense, but his dismissal—unlike Bush's firing of Rumsfeld in 2006—will do nothing to quell the growing consensus of a foreign policy seriously adrift," says the former national security official. "That is because Rumsfeld was relevant, the architect of a failed strategy. Hagel by contrast has been a peripheral, weak figure from the start. Everyone knows the White House is the problem—a problem the Hagel dismissal reinforces rather than resolves."