Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, on December 4, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, on December 4, 2014. DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt

Hagel Says the Decision To Leave the Pentagon Was Mutual

But the outgoing defense secretary reveals little about why the White House forced him out. By Gordon Lubold

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s decision to resign was a mutual decision between him and President Barack Obama, Hagel told reporters Thursday.

Speaking at the Pentagon for the first time since announcing his resignation at the White House last week, Hagel spoke extensively about the circumstances of his departure, but gave few if any clues that would expand the understanding of why he was leaving.

“We both came to the conclusion that -- I think the country was best served with new leadership, he thought it was, over in this institution, after we had talked through it,” Hagel said. “I made my contribution during my time, and I’m proud of that, of what we did. And I feel very confident and very secure about -- as I leave here, that we, all of us together –- not Secretary Hagel but all of us as a team –- have prepared this institution over the last two years to take on these big issues that are ahead.”

While Hagel was not considered by most to be the most effective Pentagon chief and was thought to be an outsider in Obama’s tight national security circle, it’s unclear just what prompted the White House to force him out. There were no distinct policy disagreements that would have triggered Obama to lose confidence in him, or known incidents of incompetence.   Hagel, who had gained a reputation for staying quiet during Cabinet meetings, had penned a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice about his concerns about U.S. policy in Syria that has contributed to the idea that Hagel and the White House were at odds over what to do in the Middle East. But it’s far from clear that that move alone caused any problems for him.

I made my contribution during my time, and I’m proud of that, of what we did.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

In the end, Hagel was hired for one set of challenges – managing a shrinking budget and essentially guiding the Pentagon quietly after years of war. But the rise of the violence in the Middle East, Russian aggression and other issues have all forced the White House to reconsider its global calculations since Hagel became Secretary in February 2013. While it remains unclear that the White House wants an assertive Pentagon chief, Hagel’s low-key and self-effacing style no longer appeared to be a good fit.

Still, in long-winded answers to reporters’ questions Thursday, Hagel revealed little about why he was leaving, referring repeatedly to a number of one-on-one conversations he had had with the president.

“The discussions the president and I had were about the next two years, how is he best prepared to lead this country and how is this institution best prepared to do the things that he must have assurance that are prepared to do – options, capabilities, capacities,” Hagel said. “I’m proud of my leadership over here, how we’ve done it.”  

The White House is poised to name Ash Carter, the former Deputy Defense Secretary, to succeed Hagel as early as Friday. Carter, who had left the Pentagon a year ago, was considered for the top post along with Hagel. But Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska who served in Vietnam, ultimately got the nod. That led to an awkward dynamic between Hagel, who had much to learn inside the Pentagon, and Carter, who is known for his budgetary and bureaucratic acumen at the Pentagon. Carter left about nine months later.

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During his tenure, Hagel attempted to build stronger ties with Israel and Egypt and traveled to Asia several times to reinforce the so-called pivot to Asia – a prominent but still controversial feature of Obama’s foreign policy. Hagel had to contend with the drawdown of the war in Afghanistan, the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, sequester and a government shutdown. And he had to manage a number of social issues such as the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gays in the military and opening combat jobs to women. And at the same time, a sexual assault crisis and wave of ethical lapses rocked the military.

None of those issues or Hagel’s handling of them appeared to cause the White House to lose faith in his leadership. Hagel himself couldn’t pinpoint the reason why he was leaving.

“It’s a combination of things as you think through these things, and the president and I talked about it. So I’m very comfortable with my position and my decision. I think the president feels good about it. I do – I feel good about it.”

But the former Army sergeant marveled at where he finds himself today compared to where he was 46 years ago.

“If anybody would have told Sgt. Hagel walking off that plane with my duffel bag where I’d be 46 years down the road, it’d been pretty hard for me to believe it. I mean, the privileges I’ve had have just been tremendous.”