Hagel to step down as defense chief under pressure

By Helene Cooper
The New York Times


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first Cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Barack Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and a beleaguered national security team that has struggled to stay ahead of an onslaught of global crises.

The president, who is expected to announce Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said.

The officials described Obama’s decision to remove Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq War, 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. He insisted that Hagel was not fired, saying that he initiated discussions about his future two weeks ago with the president, and that the two men mutually agreed that it was time for him to leave.

But Hagel’s aides had maintained in recent weeks that he expected to serve the full four years term 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 to the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group.

Even before the announcement of Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense; Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

A respected former senator who struck a friendship with Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq War from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists. Senior administration officials have characterized him as quiet during Cabinet meetings; Hagel’s defenders said that he waited until he was alone with the president before sharing his views, the better to avoid leaks.

Whatever the case, Hagel struggled to fit in with Obama’s close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration after a bruising confirmation fight among his old Senate colleagues, during which he was criticized for seeming tentative in his responses to sharp questions.

He never really shed that pall after arriving at the Pentagon, and in the past months he has largely ceded the stage to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who officials said initially won the confidence of Obama with his recommendation of military action against the Islamic State.

In his less than two years on the job, Hagel’s detractors said he struggled to inspire confidence at the Pentagon in the manner of his predecessors, especially Robert Gates. But several of Obama’s top advisers have over the past months also acknowledged privately that the president did not want another high-profile defense secretary in the manner of Gates, who went on to write a memoir of his years with Obama in which he sharply criticized the president. Hagel, they said, in many ways, was exactly the kind of Defense Secretary which the president, after battling the military during his first term, wanted.

Hagel, for his part, spent his time on the job largely carrying out Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back U.S. troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback. He did manage to inspire loyalty among enlisted soldiers and often seemed at his most confident when talking to troops or sharing wartime experiences as a Vietnam veteran.

But Hagel has often had problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner, and has sometimes left reporters struggling to describe what he has said in news conferences. In his side-by-side appearances with both Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry, Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the first former enlisted combat soldier to be Defense Secretary, has often been upstaged.

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

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