Hagel’s exit is no staff shake-up – Politico

Chuck Hagel is shown. | Getty


As dramatic as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s abrupt resignation Monday was, it’s far short of the overhaul of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and national security team many current and former officials had been looking for.

Hagel’s role in the administration’s national security debates had become so minor that replacing him is unlikely to herald a new direction or fresh start on some of the most urgent crises the U.S. is facing abroad, such as the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. And the names of likely replacements now circulating suggest the new secretary could face a similar freeze-out from the tight inner circle responsible for most White House decision-making.

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At the same time, some administration officials have pointed to ways Hagel sped up his own exit, noting that the White House had longstanding concerns about the defense secretary and his slow pace implementing some policies he was tasked with carrying out.

“What’s sad about this whole thing is that this is a way to say to the American electorate that we are shaking things up, but this is not a shake-up because Hagel never really had a voice in policy discussions anyway,” one former defense official said. “This is so superficial.”

For months, Washington has been rife with complaints about the insularity and centralization of White House decision-making on foreign policy and national security. There have been signs that Obama has been seeking fresh blood for his final two years in office as his administration struggles with unexpected challenges like ISIL and Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine.

Hagel’s exit is likely to bring some change to Obama’s foreign policy line-up, but former officials say that departure is unlikely to break the tight grip longtime Obama aides such as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and National Security Adviser Susan Rice have on the advice and options reaching the Oval Office.

“This is clearly one of the most controlling foreign policy presidents, if not the most controlling, since Richard Nixon. This is a guy who dominates and doesn’t delegate,” said former State Department official Aaron David Miller. “You can’t fire the president. [Secretary of State] Kerry’s not going to quit, and Susan Rice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”

He continued, “Is this seriously an effort to inject real energy and drive into a set of policies that are not frankly going to be made much better by changes in personnel?”

Part of the doubts about the impact of replacing Hagel on the style and substance of White House foreign policy decisions stem from the names seen as likely potential replacements for him: former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. Both are well-respected in policy circles, but neither has the heft many experts view as necessary to displace or even counterbalance “lifers” in the Obama White House.

“You’d need somebody identified in the public mind and by the political elite with some different course of action,” Miller said, pointing to James Baker and Henry Kissinger as examples of the type of figure needed. “I’m not sure there’s anyone on the present political scene who can provide that.”

Longtime Hagel friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday the defense secretary was “very, very frustrated” by his inability to break through the array of other advisers at the White House.

“Already the White House people are leaking, ‘Well, he wasn’t up to the job.’ Believe me, he was up to the job,” McCain told KFYI-AM in Phoenix Monday. “It was the job that he was given where he really was never really brought in to that real tight circle inside the White House that makes all the decisions.”

However, Kerry — who has been close to Hagel since the pair served together in the Senate before joining Obama’s Cabinet — said he was unaware of any complaints from Hagel that he was being frozen out.

“I haven’t heard that from Chuck personally — ever,” Kerry told reporters at a news conference in Vienna Monday. “I’m very sad to hear that Chuck has made the decision to resign. He is a longtime friend, a great friend.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest strongly suggested Monday that Hagel’s departure stemmed from questions about whether he was the best choice to lead the fight in Iraq and Syria against ISIL.

“When Secretary Hagel was first nominated for this job … the threat posed by ISIL was not nearly as significant as it is now,” Earnest said.

The White House spokesman said Obama was confident Hagel was the right person to lead the Pentagon when he was selected, given the focus on budget constraints and streamlining the military.

However, current and former officials said the White House’s frustration with Hagel was not limited to the fight against ISIL. In the eyes of Obama aides, Hagel could be maddeningly slow to respond to policy directives from the White House.

When Obama began pushing last year to reinvigorate the process of closing Guantanamo, White House aides repeatedly urged Hagel to sign off on transfers of detainees who’d long been cleared for release. Yet for months the defense secretary refused to sign certifications that the future threat posed by the prisoners could be adequately mitigated, according to a U.S. official.

“This was not an insignificant source of friction,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “I can say definitively on this one it has been utterly public and unmistakeable in terms of the disconnect.”

White House irritation with Hagel grew so intense that last May, Rice sent Hagel an extraordinary memo directing him to report every two weeks on progress towards transferring or releasing Guantanamo prisoners, the source said, discussing a directive first reported earlier this year by The New York Times.

“He was the bottleneck,” said one advocate closely tracking the process. “He wasn’t signing off.”

There was little movement from Hagel until a meeting of national security principals last month, which pushed the defense secretary to reluctantly approve a few transfers, the official said.

While few analysts believe the tug-of-war over Guantanamo releases was a key factor in Hagel’s, it was a piece of the broader problems in his relationship with the White House.

“There were several things, but this was certainly a weight on the scale that actually registered,” the official said.


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