Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addresses soldiers at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., on November 16, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addresses soldiers at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., on November 16, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt

Hagel's Rise and Fall Had Nothing To Do With Foreign Policy

The defense secretary's role is not to set a course, but to execute it. Hagel never did that well. By Peter Beinart

When I heard that Chuck Hagel was leaving as secretary of defense, I called someone close to the administration to try out the explanation bubbling up on Twitter: that Hagel had been hired to bury the “war on terror” and was being replaced because the White House now needed someone who wanted to vigorously prosecute it. My source sighed. “You guys tend to over interpret these things,” he said.

Oh yeah, I thought. I should know that by now. When Hagel was chosen I wrote a 3,000-word essayclaiming his nomination “may prove the most consequential foreign-policy appointment of his [Obama’s] presidency. Because the struggle over Hagel is a struggle over whether Obama can change the terms of foreign-policy debate.” In one sense, that claim was correct. Hagel’s confirmation did spark a large, nasty fight over the terms of American foreign policy. Hawks blasted Hagel for casting doubt on military action against Iran and for criticizing what he called, inaccurately, “the Jewish lobby.” Hagel’s defenders argued that by nominating him, Obama was declaring independence from a foreign-policy establishment that had not reconsidered the assumptions that led America into Afghanistan and Iraq. And we argued that by nominating someone who had spoken uncomfortable truths about the influence groups like AIPAC wield in Congress, Obama was combatting the culture of hyper-caution that stymied provocative thinking inside the Democratic foreign-policy elite.

It was an interesting debate. It just didn’t have a lot to do with what Hagel would do as secretary of defense. Intoxicated by the symbolic significance of a Hagel appointment, both his defenders and his adversaries tended to overlook one mundane but crucial fact: That in the ultra-centralized Obama White House, Hagel’s foreign-policy views wouldn’t matter all that much. Robert Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary, has complained, “It’s in the increasing desire of the White House to control and manage every aspect of military affairs.” Leon Panetta, who succeeded him, recently added that, “Because of that centralization of authority at the White House, there are too few voices that are being heard.”

Gates and Hillary Clinton managed to wield some influence nonetheless, because they locked arms on key issues and because their public statures made them virtually unfireable. But there was never much chance that Hagel could do the same. Unlike Gates and Clinton, he had no outside power base. To the contrary, he was widely disliked by his former Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill. Unlike Gates and Clinton, he had no experience manipulating the bureaucracy of government. And finally, as his confirmation hearings made clear, he was a painfully poor public communicator.  

Most of the debate over Hagel’s confirmation focused on his foreign-policy beliefs. But even back then, it was pretty clear that he was being hired not to rethink Obama’s foreign policy but to execute it. And there was reason to suspect he wouldn’t execute it very well.

That will be the criterion for Hagel’s successor too. In recent months, the Obama administration has grown more hawkish. It has expanded the war against ISIS and authorized a more aggressive military campaign in Afghanistan. Thus, when Obama names Hagel’s appointment, pundits will do their best to make the choice fit that larger narrative. But even if the next defense secretary does have hawkish inclinations, it still won’t matter all that much, just as it didn’t matter all that much that Hagel had dovish ones.

Hagel lost his job, my source explained, because he had “not delivered on demands from the White House to the Pentagon.” Whatever his or her worldview, Hagel’s successor will be judged by that same test: how well can he or she implement the instructions they get from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Among the media’s many biases is our bias toward trying to make news events seem more important and interesting than they really are. During the Hagel nomination, I was guilty of that bias in a big way. From now on, I’m going to try to make my commentary as boring as the events I analyze.