Mr. Hagel, who announced his resignation Monday, emerged as a fixture on the Sunday TV talks shows. His speeches on what he considered the folly of the Iraq war troop surge were widely quoted. To Washington’s liberal establishment, the once-loyal Republican had transformed into a foreign policy master.
On the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he formed an alliance with Joseph R. Biden and, most importantly, a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Mr. Hagel declared himself a disciple of now-Vice President Biden’s foreign policy beliefs and accompanied Mr. Obama on a well-publicized fact-finding trip to Iraq.
“Hagel not only helped Obama gain cover on national security matters, and gain confidence, but also saw the world in a somewhat similar way,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “And, of course, back in 2006, 2007, 2008, Obama needed people like Hagel to vouch for his bona fides.”
Perhaps Mr. Hagel’s biggest move to place himself inside Obama’s circle of trusted advisers was his 2007 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, a club that oozes Washington media and government establishment.
“It is my opinion that this is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen personally or ever read about — the most arrogant in history,” Mr. Hagel told an appreciative crowd that included a Washington Post editor whose questioning set a theme of Mr. Bush being the worst president ever.
“I would rate this one the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus — almost every area, I would give it the lowest grade,” Mr. Hagel said.
An inauspicious debut
His years of loyalty paid off with the president’s re-election: Mr. Obama nominated him to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. With a strong bond formed as senators, Mr. Hagel and Mr. Obama expected he would be the president’s third — and last — secretary of defense.
Yet trouble lay immediately ahead from Mr. Hagel’s former Senate Republican colleagues, who recalled his hyperbolic opposition to the 2007 Iraq troop surge. Mr. Hagel had called it the worst mistake in the history of warfare.
He also had made statements some viewed as anti-Israel and pro-Islamic militants. A twice-wounded Vietnam War soldier, he seemed disposed to greatly reducing the defense budget, including the nuclear arsenal.
Under tough questioning before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Mr. Hagel stumbled repeatedly and seemed inarticulate. Even some liberal pundits lamented his performance.
“When Hagel was nominated, a lot of his critics questioned his competence,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and a military scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Obama and his supporters castigated these people as motivated by politics or their disagreements with Hagel over Israel.
“But Hagel’s confirmation hearing was nothing short of embarrassing. The White House may have wanted to make him seem like a defense intellectual, but at best Hagel was like the valedictorian of a summer school class.”
Bruised but not defeated, Mr. Hagel won confirmation from the Democratic-controlled Senate in February 2013. He proceeded to tackle two main objectives — a major reduction in defense funds and personnel, and a methodical troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
After all, Mr. Hagel was working for a commander in chief whose motto is “I was elected to end wars, not start ‘em.”
Sticking to those two objectives — budget cuts and ending a war — worked well for Mr. Hagel that first year.
Mr. Rubin said the exodus of senior officials who worked under Mr. Panetta was not just normal turnover.
“The problem wasn’t just that Hagel wasn’t the smartest man at the Pentagon, but rather his insecurity,” Mr. Rubin said. “Most leaders recognize their limitations and surround themselves with those who know the portfolio even better. Hagel, however, needed to be the smartest kid on the block, and so he purged those he should have embraced.”
Outside the inner circle
Mr. Hagel’s honeymoon with the White House ended in late 2013. The Arab Spring had grown dark, eclipsed by the rise of brutal Islamic terrorist groups. The worst was happening in Syria, and there Mr. Hagel and the president had their first, and last, policy dispute.
Mr. Panetta; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman; then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and the CIA all wanted in 2012 to arm moderate Syrian rebels. Those groups were trying to juggle two daunting challenges: unseat President Bashar Assad and fend off Islamic militants aiming to take over Syria.
By last January a particularly vicious terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State had risen up in Syria from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq. It invaded western Iraq, and with some ease started to take over territory.
Mr. Obama told The New Yorker magazine that the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, was nothing more than a “JV” version of al Qaeda. Nothing to be worried about.
This gross underestimation again put him at odds with Mr. Hagel, whose generals and intelligence officers had been watching the terrorist group and knew its power.
By the summer, Mr. Hagel was openly portraying the Islamic State as “beyond anything that we’ve seen” and an “imminent” threat to the United States. The rhetoric was far beyond Mr. Obama‘s, underscoring the rashness of his JV assessment months earlier.
In July he said, “The Middle East is blowing up.” He told troops in August, “The world is exploding all over.”
Perhaps Mr. Hagel himself wrote the final chapter of his fall when he sent a private letter (later disclosed by The New York Times) to Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice. He employed pointed language to take apart Mr. Obama’s Syria policy, which at present would leave Mr. Assad in power even though the White House had said it wants him to go.
The Senate friends had become administration adversaries.
‘Fealty and ability’
Besides Mr. Obama’s reversal this summer on sending small arms to the rebels, the administration has done little to help moderate Syrians fend off Mr. Assad and the extremists.
Douglas Feith, under secretary of defense for policy in Mr. Bush’s first term, said he believes the White House viewed Mr. Hagel as failing to censor his generals when commenting about the limited war against the Islamic State.
“From the get-go, generals publicly made clear that the restrictions would make it impossible to achieve the goals,” Mr. Feith said. “It seems that President Obama was angered by what the generals said and thinks that Hagel failed to keep the generals in line.”
“It’s important to remember why Obama embraced Hagel,” Mr. Rubin said. “The two traveled together as senators and hit it off. Let us hope that Obama realizes that fealty and ability are not synonymous.”
Mr. O’Hanlon called Mr. Hagel a “respectable” defense secretary. “I don’t think he was a disaster by any means,” he said.
“That said, there probably are stronger people. And heaven knows that, in the Middle East in particular, we need some fresh thinking,” he said. “But, of course, even a new secretary of defense will have a hard time being successful if the White House continues to impose severe constraints on policy options. Perhaps that is now changing in regard to Iraq in particular, but I’m not sure.”
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.