So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?
It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.
Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”
Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.
The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.
Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.
If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.
The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.