The US defense secretary has been fired after less than two years in office as the White House re-orders a national security strategy upended by the Islamic State (Isis).
Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama’s third Pentagon chief and a former Republican senator, will leave the Department of Defense just weeks after his spokesman said Hagel was looking forward to serving “for the remainder” of the Obama administration.
Two senior administration officials told the Guardian on Monday that a New York Times report of his exit was “correct”, and said more details would be announced shortly by the White House.
Obama is expected to confirm his defense secretary’s departure in a “personnel announcement” scheduled in the State Dining Room at 11.10am ET. It was not clear if Obama would announce another change to his Iraq-Syria war strategy to correspond with Hagel’s departure.
The first national security casualty of Obama’s midterm elections defeat was one who, despite his Capitol Hill pedigree and Republican registration, never won the confidence of the congressional GOP, who considered him a water-carrier for the administration.
Before Obama’s announcement, a senior administration official praised Hagel as “a steady hand,” and said Hagel had been speaking with Obama in October about leaving “given the natural post-midterms transition time.” Hagel’s spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told Pentagon reporters on November 7 that Hagel expected to stay on.
Hagel was out of step with the administration on Isis, having urged the White House to clarify its stance on ushering Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad out of power and bizarrely inflating the threat Isis posed, calling it “an imminent threat to every interest we have” in an August press conference. While the administration has publicly ruled out using US ground forces in combat in Iraq, Hagel and particularly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, floated precisely that as an option in testimony earlier this month.
A man who never quite found his footing as Pentagon chief, Hagel also testified that the US strategy against Isis – which focuses on Iraq primarily and Syria peripherally – was working, even as it undergoes frequent adjustment and revision.
Yet the strategy has come under criticism from hawks as well as doves. Hawks want a deeper US commitment of air as well as ground forces to beating Isis back, while doves are alarmed at the shifting of US war aims and commensurate resources. The next chairman of the Senate armed services committee, Arizona Republican John McCain, wants a more forceful US response to Isis and had long fallen out with his former friend Hagel.
In the five months since Isis seized Mosul, Obama has authorized 3,000 new troops to advise and train Iraqis, and expanded an air war into Syria. Pentagon efforts to field a Syrian proxy force have barely begun and are expected to take a year before yielding the first capable units.
Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran and a non-commissioned army officer, was not expected to be a wartime defense secretary, instead brought in to manage the downsizing of US ground forces and shore up the administration’s at-times uneasy relationship with the military. His Senate confirmation hearing saw the former senator rambling and unfocused; he mischaracterized the administration’s position on Iran. Amongst Hagel’s more forceful positions early in office was to warn against US involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Several oft-mentioned names to replace Hagel have already surfaced. Former defense policy chief Michele Flournoy, a figure deeply identified with the troop surge in Afghanistan, would be the first woman to run the Pentagon. The Times reported that Rhode Island Senate Democrat Jack Reed is in the running, as is Ashton Carter, a senior official noted for his management and budgetary skills who was Robert Gates’ acquisitions chief and Leon Panetta’s deputy secretary.
The senior official said a successor would be nominated in “short order” and Hagel will serve until his successor’s confirmation.