Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel handed his resignation to President Barack Obama on Monday roughly 20 months after a contentious confirmation in Congress, setting up yet another battle between the Hill and the White House, this time over Obama’s next pick for defense secretary.
Hagel mentored then-Sen. Obama on foreign policy when the two were members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. But the defense secretary’s resignation follows several months of speculation and reporting that Hagel was unhappy with the direction of the fight against the Islamic State and the administration’s Middle East strategy. He also has received low marks as a manager and leader from individuals in the national security community, according to a recent survey.
Obama’s critics on Capitol Hill wasted no time in previewing the impending fight over his replacement. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., summed up much of the reaction: the resignation is about Obama, not Hagel.
“The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth Secretary of Defense,” McKeon said. “When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask ‘is it them, or is it me?’”
McKeon told CNN on Monday that Obama should expect a tough confirmation for his choice given the current rancor between the White House and the soon-to-be Republican majority in Congress, in particular over Obama’s executive action on immigration last week. “He’s digging himself a hole on Capitol Hill, I think he’s kind of, ‘in your face’ to the Congress,” McKeon said. “I think he’s gonna have a very tough time getting any nomination through, so we may have Secretary Hagel there for a while.”
The White House said Hagel will remain defense secretary until the Senate confirms his replacement. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said later Monday in response to whether the selection will happen in the lame duck, “Before we talk about timing, we’ll find a nominee, and then we can discuss timing.” The president’s party lost control of the Senate in the midterm elections, meaning a GOP-majority could preside over the confirmation process.
McKeon, who is retiring at the end of the year, said that the executive action should not necessarily impact the choosing of a new defense secretary at such a critical time, but it likely will. “That’s the way it happens … He’s come out full-bore against the Congress when the new Congress hasn’t even been seated yet.”
Moments after Obama and Hagel announced the resignation at the White House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., soon to be majority leader when the GOP takes control of the Senate in January, warned Obama to choose wisely.
“It’s important to remember that Secretary Hagel’s departure comes at a moment of great peril for our country,” McConnell said. “His successor will confront the daunting challenges of modernizing our conventional military forces to meet the challenges posed by Russia and China; restructuring the force after more than a decade of counterinsurgency warfare; maintaining our dominance in the air and at sea; investing in the next generation of weapons systems to preserve our nuclear triad; and combatting terror whether from al-Qaeda, associate forces, ISIL, or other groups seeking to exploit the ungoverned spaces created by revolt and unrest.”
“All of these challenges come at a time when the all-volunteer force faces a shortage of resources and investment,” he continued. “It is imperative that the next Secretary of Defense possess a sharp grasp of strategy, a demonstrated ability to think creatively, and the willingness and ability to work with Congress. And it is critical that the president consider these qualifications and challenges as he considers such an important nomination.”
Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, was the only Republican in Obama’s cabinet. Despite his contentious confirmation and heated exchanges in recent appearances on the Hill, he kept a close relationship with his former colleagues, in particular retiring Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. and soon-to-be Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the expected incoming Armed Services Committee chairman, said Hagel was taking the fall for White House failures. McCain said Hagel was in his office last week expressing his frustration over micromanagement by administration officials.
“Chuck and I have worked well together, and we have often seen eye to eye on our biggest national security challenges – ISIS, the conflict in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, a rising China, and most of all, sequestration,” McCain said. “I know that Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process. His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micromanagement they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck’s situation was no different.
“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. That is the real change we need right now.”
Congress is currently on Thanksgiving recess, and is scheduled to work for less than 10 days total before the year’s end. Already lawmakers must pass a spending bill to fund the government past Dec. 11, and leaders are pushing for a trillion-dollar-plus omnibus spending measure. An authorization for the Pentagon’s program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels also expires Dec. 11, and the Pentagon has indicated it needs Congress to approve some $1.6 billion of a $5.6 billion supplemental Overseas Contingency Operations request in order for it to move forward with a recent authorization that would double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. The annual defense authorization bill is also considered must-pass legislation and is expected to come down to the wire.
The top names being floated to replace Hagel are Reed, Levin, former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy. Reed’s spokesman quickly put out a statement saying the newly re-elected senator is not interested in the job.
“He has made it very clear that he does not wish to be considered for Secretary of Defense or any other cabinet position,” Reed spokesman Chip Unruh told Defense One. “He just asked the people of Rhode Island to hire him for another six year term and plans on honoring that commitment.”
Just last week, reporters asked Levin about his plans for life after Congress — would he consider a role in the cabinet or another position in government?
He shook his head, saying, “I am going home.”