The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.
This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.
That Hagel would be a “paper tiger”—as the headline of the Politico piece calls him—comes as no surprise. While his military service is admirable, it takes more than a war record to run an enterprise as vast as the DOD. Moreover, even when pleading his case before the Senate, he didn’t really promise us anything different. At the time, even his defenders were puzzled by his argument that he would not be the person setting policy but just a manager implementing the president’s wishes. But, with rare exceptions, that’s exactly what he has been. On all the crucial issues involving the use of the military, he hasn’t been MIA, keeping quiet even when his boss in the Oval Office wished him to speak up, such as at the hearing about putative plans for striking Syria. The president chose him in part because he shared Hagel’s “realist” views about appeasing Iran and downgrading the alliance with Israel. But he was primarily interested in having the brash former enlisted man do his bidding when it came to downsizing the defense establishment and putting generals in their place. Yet he has largely failed to do that and, in the first stirrings of independence, seems more intent on backing up the generals than in shutting them up.
Even on issues that should have been political slam-dunks for him, Hagel has faltered. Politico describes him as serving as Obama’s “human shield” on the increasingly important question of sexual assaults in the military. Rather than going along with prominent Democrats like New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made this her signature issue, Hagel has backed up the brass when it comes to removing investigations from the normal military chain of command, prompting her to describe him as neither showing leadership nor living up to his promises.
Though he has been of little use in helping to bridge the gap between the parties on the budget standoff, Hagel is right when he protests about the way the sequester has negatively impacted readiness and overall the ability of the military to do its job or defend the nation. And, if Politico’s sources are to be believed, he may have been a rare voice of sanity in the administration on Egypt policy and may have slightly ameliorated the damage done by both Obama and Kerry for their embrace of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. But his overall performance has been lackluster at best. Obama was told that Hagel was not ready for the job and those warnings have proven accurate.
In one sense, Hagel is a classic example of the way second-term presidents wind up with untalented also-rans after their initial appointees either leave or burn out. Though he has largely flown under the radar since his confirmation, he is the perfect symbol for Obama’s fifth year in office during which he has lost the confidence of the public and demonstrated his inability to govern effectively on a host of issues. But he is more than a symbol. What the president needed was more than a steadier hand and tougher presence at Defense than Hagel. He needed someone of the stature of former secretary Robert Gates who, whatever his mistakes and failings, gave both Presidents Bush and Obama an alternative view to what many top advisers were whispering in their ears. Such a figure would have been invaluable this fall as Obama and Kerry rushed headlong into the arms of the Iranians in pursuit of their effort to create a new détente with the Islamist regime and to throw Israel under the bus. If Obama’s staffers now realize that Hagel is an empty suit that can’t advance their political agenda, it is the country that has lost even more by having an Obama yes-man at the Pentagon.