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The tightrope of Chuck Hagel

You don’t normally see cabinet secretaries resign right after midterm elections, so Chuck Hagel’s exit from the Pentagon should raise some eyebrows. Hagel hasn’t said much, and we shouldn’t expect him to, especially while memories of his exit are still fresh. But in the media swirl of the Washington Beltway, there’s not much that Hagel actually needs to say. So many people around Hagel – Congressional policymakers, Defense Department staff, and other Washington insiders – have been talking nonstop about what his resignation means.

Officially, Hagel went out in a mutually agreeable fashion. The White House complimented his record of service, and Hagel had nothing bad to say about the President. All that is standard fare. The President needs to be above public infighting, and there’s no reason for him to bad-mouth Hagel. And although the Obama Administration has been notable for the criticism that it has attracted from its former staffers before Obama has even left office, there is typically a waiting period before the dirty laundry is aired; Hagel’s predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta surprisingly criticized the President in their autobiographies, but they waited a few years to do that. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the notion advanced by Obama that American foreign policy should be guided by the mantra “Don’t do stupid stuff,” but that’s mostly her playing the political game: Clinton is almost certainly running for president in 2016, and Hagel is almost certainly not.

Despite the thinly held veneer of decorum that governs D.C. politics, the war of words has already begun. The only thing that Washington can agree on is that Hagel – who was adamant about keeping his job just a week before he left it – didn’t simply retire. Administration officials essentially concede that Obama pushed out the Secretary, saying that Hagel “wasn’t up to the job”; news stories about Hagel’s disagreements with the White House on Guantanamo and Syria hit the presses.

Neither, for that matter, were these sentiments new. A year ago, government staffers indicated to Politico that Hagel was on the hot seat. Meanwhile, members of the Hagel camp are quietly explaining to the press that Hagel and Obama mutually agreed on Hagel’s exit, but you shouldn’t expect anything different. Unless Hagel chooses to become a martyr and go out in a blaze of glory – a move that, while making for great TV in the short run, would toxify Hagel to any high-level employers down the road – why would he ever admit that he was fired?

Perhaps this was always to be expected. This is a man who had previously called for “A Republican Foreign Policy” in Foreign Affairs, a Republican Senator called up to serve in a Democratic Administration. Even so, I don’t mean to chalk up Hagel’s exit to party politics. Strange bedfellows though the two might have been, Hagel and Obama agreed on a number of key issues, including the need for a leaner military. In any case, “A Republican Foreign Policy” articulates principles that would not be out of place in the Obama Administration; Obama may be less enthusiastic about the prospects of spreading democracy abroad, but he talks up democracy nonetheless.

But despite these similarities, Hagel’s record is hardly the work of a yes-man. And while the Administration can contend that Hagel wasn’t doing his job properly, reports of notable disagreements imply that Hagel simply wasn’t the man Obama wanted to do it. How much, then, of Obama’s defense and foreign policies can be chalked up to Hagel? It was unclear before, but now we have absolutely no idea.

It’s possible to downplay these rifts; in its review of Panetta’s memoir “Worthy Fights,” the New York Times pointed out that Panetta’s much-publicized criticisms of Obama’s Middle East policy took up “a mere dozen or so” pages. But given that President Obama is still in office, what is remarkable is that these criticisms are happening at all. And it certainly looks as if Hagel will have every reason to wield his pen with an acidic flair once the smoke has cleared.

In a sense, Hagel’s exit does owe its genesis to party politics. With the Democrats reeling from the 2014 midterm elections, something had to be done, and making a change at Defense became a priority, if only because the White House needed to create the illusion of action. “For good or ill, Hagel’s [the only change],” a current administration official told Politico. A former spokesman for the State Department even likened it to a sports owner firing a coach to please angry fans, even though the team is years away from being good regardless of the coach. The general consensus is indeed that Hagel is President Obama’s sacrificial lamb.

Going forward, as with a sacrificial lamb or a coach whose days are numbered, the action will change very little. The same fundamental issues, challenges, and factors that influence American foreign policy are the same. President Obama is still around, and most of his key advisors are still here as well. For the next two years, then, we should be expecting more of the same. If things change, they will not change because Chuck Hagel is no longer running the Pentagon.

But if Hagel blasts the Administration in his own autobiography, we should not be surprised. In a world where written statements are parsed a thousand times for political implications before they hit the presses, even three ex-Secretaries speaking out makes a trend.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi

Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.