This story has been updated.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned as defense secretary after less than two years on the job.
President Barack Obama announced Hagel’s departure during brief remarks at the White House on Monday morning. “Last month Chuck came to me to discuss the final quarter of my presidency and determined that having guided the department through this transition, it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service,” Obama said.
“There is one thing I know about Chuck is that he does not make this or any decision lightly. This decision does not come easily to him. But I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have had him by my side for two years, and I am grateful that Chuck has agreed to stay on until I nominate a successor and that successor is confirmed by the Senate, which means that he’ll continue to guide our troops at this challenging time,” he said, flanked by Hagel and Vice President Joe Biden in the State Dining Room at the White House.
Neither Hagel nor Obama gave a reason for the sudden departure. Hagel has been at the helm of the Pentagon since last February.
“It’s been the greatest privilege of my life — the greatest privilege of my life to lead and most important to serve, to serve with the men and women of the Defense Department and support their families. I am immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished during this time,” Hagel said Monday.
In a letter to service members and Defense Department employees, Hagel said: “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.”
A senior administration official said discussions about his resignation have been ongoing for several weeks. “In October, Secretary Hagel began speaking with the president about departing the administration given the natural post-midterms transition time,” the official said.
On the short list to replace Hagel are his fellow Vietnam veteran and close friend Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy. Reed’s spokesman said Monday the senator doesn’t want the job. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James are also names making lists on Monday, according to Pentagon sources. The next defense secretary will be the fourth to serve under Obama. President Harry Truman had four defense secretaries. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had three.
Hagel, 68, has been under mounting pressure in recent months as a growing number of national security problems have clouded the Obama administration, from Russian aggression and the threat of the Islamic State to scandals and budget cuts in the Defense Department. Criticism of Hagel’s lack of leadership on those crises often was conflated with criticism of the administration. In the past year, the critique that White House officials are micromanaging the Pentagon, especially from the National Security Council, has reached its loudest point of Obama’s administration.
In August, Flournoy, now CEO of the Center for a New American Security, told Defense One that “it is hard to handle the volume of what the world is throwing at the U.S. right now if everything has to go up to the most senior levels.”
“There are some things that needed to be coordinated at the very top within the White House,” Flournoy said, “and there is a lot that with some basic guidance you could empower your agencies. Over-centralization in this kind of environment really hampers your responsiveness and limits what you can take on.”
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the Obama administration “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen” since the Nixon White House.
Hagel was brought in to lead the Pentagon after the war in Iraq ended, the war in Afghanistan wound down and deep budgets cuts became the new normal. After a contentious and bumbling Senate confirmation hearing in early 2013, Hagel stepped into the top job at the Pentagon as a quiet, unassuming leader. He used his experience as a former Republican senator to try to reverse budget cuts known as sequestration, led the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and, as a Vietnam combat veteran, became a voice of caution for the use of military force across the globe.
But quickly, Hagel became entrenched in combating a number of conflicts and threats around the world, and several scandals inside the Defense Department, including a rise in sexual assaults and problems within the nuclear force.
And it became clear that there was dissention among some military leaders on the best way to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In October, Hagel wrote a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice criticizing the strategy in Syria, and specifically how to handle the Assad regime.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is in line to be the next chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement on Monday praising Hagel and sharply criticizing the White House.
“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. 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 micro-management they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck’s situation was no different,” McCain said.
“I hope the president will nominate a secretary of defense with the strength of character, judgment and independence that Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel all exhibited at their best,” McCain said. “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. That is the real change we need right now.”
On Twitter, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote: “It’s clear to me Sec Hagel realizes our failures in Syria have greatly contributed to destabilization in Iraq & robust response is required.”
Though Hagel never enjoyed high marks, a Defense One survey released earlier this month showed that his approval rating was just 26 percent among national security workers. At the time, Pentagon Spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said, “The secretary is focused on his job making sure men and women in uniform and their families have all the support for the mission they’ve been assigned. That’s his focus.”