World

11.24.14 7:30 PM ET

Hagel Takes a Bullet for Obama: Inside the Defense Secretary’s Sudden Firing

The Secretary of Defense is stepping down after less than two lackluster years inside the Pentagon walls and disastrous developments around the world.

From practically the day he took office as the 24th Secretary of Defense less than two years ago, Chuck Hagel was a marked man. After one of the more brutal confirmation hearings of a senior Cabinet official in recent memory—Hagel had to apologize for saying a “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. exercised political influence by intimidation, and he erroneously described the Obama administration’s Iran policy as “containment”—Washington was filled with whispers that Hagel wasn’t up to the job and wasn’t long for it, either.

In that sense, President Barack Obama’s decision to replace Hagel, announced Monday, doesn’t come as much of a shock. But the timing is conspicuous and fuels allegations that Hagel is being made a scapegoat for the myriad foreign policy crises that the White House has bungled, from the rise of ISIS to the resurgence of a nationalist Russia to the response to an outbreak of Ebola.

Hagel wasn’t brought in to tackle these crises, and some defense sources say he simply wasn’t up to it. The presumption at the beginning of his tenure was that he would be a drawdown defense secretary—something that world events ultimately wouldn’t allow.

“Despite being a yes-man for his first year in the administration, he had begun to push back against the president’s defense policies,” a senior aide to a Republican senator who opposed Hagel’s nomination told The Daily Beast. “When your party loses an election, there are consequences—he’s a scapegoat, [and targeted] because he was beginning to push back against what the president was doing at the Department of Defense.”

Hagel’s resignation was decided last Thursday night, a Pentagon official tells The Daily Beast. The news only got out to a few people in the building, who described the next day at work as exceptionally awkward. Many Pentagon officials were surprised to learn Monday from a New York Times report that their boss was leaving. (An earlier announcement would have been impractical, as Obama had his plate full rolling out his controversial plan to begin overhauling the immigration system.)

So it was that a duty-bound Hagel, a man who had honorably served in the Vietnam War and still carries shrapnel in his chest from that conflict, was fired Monday morning on live television alongside President Obama and a clearly displeased Vice President Joe Biden.

The announcement of Hagel’s resignation was followed with a show of incredible ironies: those who had once led the charge against him were ready to praise his efforts—if only to use them to criticize the administration he’s now departing.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon once called Hagel “unfit” to lead the Pentagon, but on Monday called him an “excellent Defense Secretary and a friend.”

“The Obama Administration is now in the market for their fourth Secretary of Defense. When the President goes through three secretaries, he should ask ‘is it them, or is it me?’” McKeon quipped.

Even Sen. John McCain, who dramatically confronted Hagel in his confirmation hearing over the 2007 Iraq troop surge and called Hagel’s performance “the worst I have seen of any nominee for office,” had nothing but praise for his fellow Vietnam vet.

“I have always considered him a friend, a patriot, and a dedicated public servant,” McCain said in a statement. “Chuck and I have worked well together, and we have often seen eye to eye on our biggest national security challenges,” he went on, then pivoted: “But ultimately, the President needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them.”

Adding to the irony: The erstwhile nominee to lead the Pentagon was criticized in 2013 for being insufficiently pro-Israel, but as news of his pending resignation spread, one Israeli official told a Haaretz reporter it was a shame Hagel was leaving, since he was so great with the Israelis.

As the presumed chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain will likely have a strong hand influencing the president’s choice for the next secretary of defense. Obama didn’t immediately name a replacement, and Hagel will stay on until his successor is confirmed. But the early odds favor Michèle Flournoy as the next secretary, according to current and former officials. She was No. 3 at the Pentagon during Obama’s first term and she was on the earlier short list to replace Leon Panetta when he left in 2013. Hagel ultimately got the nod, but his early departure positions Flournoy to become the first woman ever to serve as the Pentagon chief.

Flournoy announced her resignation from the Pentagon at the end of 2011, citing the need to spend more time with her three young children. But on Capitol Hill, her name was the first to come to mind for national security staffers— especially those who had urged her consideration the last time around.

Another name that was mentioned both two years ago and today is Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, who immediately ruled out any interest in the position. He “does not wish to be considered for secretary of defense or any other Cabinet position,” a Reed spokesman told the Providence Journal.

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Robert Work and Ashton Carter, the current and preceding deputy secretaries of defense respectively, have also been floated as Hagel replacements.

Almost as soon as Hagel’s departure was reported, dueling narratives emerged about the real reason he’s stepping down. Administration officials whispered—predictably—that Hagel was never up to the task of running the fight against ISIS or responding nimbly and dependably to the other crises that appeared on the horizon. But others inside the Defense Department accused the White House of trying to micromanage the Pentagon and keep Hagel from stealing the spotlight, as earlier secretaries, including Panetta and Robert Gates had been known to do. And they said that the blame for managing foreign policy crises can hardly be heaped on the departing secretary. Inside the building, “the louder criticism is directed squarely at the White House and not the Pentagon,” according to another Defense Department official.

Hagel sought to downplay any rift in a statement to Defense Department employees. “You should know I did not make this decision lightly. But after much discussion, the President and I agreed that now was the right time for new leadership here at the Pentagon,” Hagel wrote.

As recently as last week, however, Hagel signaled no intention of departing before the end of Obama’s second term. “I don’t get up in the morning and worry about my job,” Hagel told Charlie Rose in an interview that aired on Wednesday. The secretary did allow that it wouldn’t be “unusual” for a president to shake up the cabinet after mid-term elections, but he gave no indication that his head was on the chopping block.

The day after the interview aired, in fact, Hagel and Obama had agreed it was time for the secretary to go. Discussion over Hagel’s departure began in October, according to one well-informed administration official: “Given the natural post-midterms transition time, those conversations have been ongoing for several weeks.”

Officially, the White House had nothing but plaudits for Hagel and his abilities running the enormous Defense Department. “Over the past two years, Secretary Hagel helped manage an intense period of transition for the United States Armed Forces, including the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions, and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready,” an administration official said in a statement.

At the White House on Monday, Obama praised Hagel as “no ordinary secretary of defense.” But aside from being the first former enlisted combat soldier to run the Pentagon, it’s hard to find any achievement that will highlight Hagel in the history books. He didn’t come into office with a clear agenda. He was widely perceived as having been outplayed by a vast military bureaucracy that he never sought to tame. The brash, engaged, occasionally self-centered ex-lawmaker seemed to retreat inward and practically disappear. Hagel was never a major player in debates among top national security officials, nor did he have the president’s ear.

His experience in Vietnam had led Hagel to become a cautious realist, one prepared to handle the scaling down of wars in the Middle East and grapple with the mandatory budget cuts allowed by Congress and the president.

But the world had other ideas: the president extended the American combat commitment in Afghanistan through 2015, and the rise of ISIS made American plans for a drawdown in the region look like foolish, misguided hopefulness.

The changing global environment, Hagel’s management style, his personal instincts—all these factors may have made him an easy target.

On his way out the door, Hagel seemed to have channeled some modicum of the spunk for which he was known on the Hill, praising the military and the department for its performance on every one of the policy snafus laid at his doorstep—fighting ISIS, responding to Ebola, and bolstering “enduring alliances,” code for NATO, which has been tested in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nationalist expansions. Hagel even predicted a “successful transition in Afghanistan,” just as reports surfaced that the Obama administration is planning to keep troops in the country longer than earlier expected.

But Hagel did look remarkably rested and relaxed. All those problems are somebody else’s now.