Obama’s defence secretary pushed out

Chuck Hagel is first US cabinet member to stand down after midterm election losses

Outgoing US defence secretary Chuck Hagel: reported to have resigned under pressure from a White House eager to project more assertive responses.  Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Outgoing US defence secretary Chuck Hagel: reported to have resigned under pressure from a White House eager to project more assertive responses. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

Chuck Hagel, president Barack Obama’s defence secretary, has stood down after less than two years in the job in a sign of increased unease at the White House on tackling growing international crises.

Mr Hagel was reported to have resigned under pressure from an administration eager to project more assertive responses. He is the first member of Mr Obama’s cabinet team to stand aside since the heavy midterm election losses for the Democratic Party.

Announcing his resignation, Mr Obama described Mr Hagel, the only Republican in his cabinet, as “an exemplary defence secretary” who had overseen major changes in the American defence forces.

The display of mutual praise from Mr Obama and Mr Hagel at the public announcement of his unexpected resignation stands in contrast to the behind-the-scenes tensions and the president’s public differences with a defence secretary who was often criticised for being too indecisive.

Ill-equipped

The laid-back former Republican senator from Nebraska was seen as being ill-equipped to tackle the militant Muslim group Islamic State, given his opposition to the Iraq war and his stewardship of the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan and the sharp reduction in defence spending.

Mr Obama and Mr Hagel appeared divided on the threat posed by IS. Months after the president dismissed the radical fighters as “jayvees” or junior varsity players against US professionals, the defence secretary said that IS had grown into something more than “just a terrorist group”.

White House officials were said to have been angered by a recent letter that Mr Hagel sent national security adviser Susan Rice, in which he said that Mr Obama needed to articulate a clearer view on the administration’s approach to dealing with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

While Mr Obama ruled out sending ground combat troops to fight IS in his September 2014 strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, Mr Hagel said this month that combat troop deployments may have to be considered if recommended by US military chiefs.

Failing to cope

Mr Hagel struggled to secure support in Congress for Mr Obama’s policies, and the president was hurt by the message in the November 4th elections that he was failing to cope with immigrants at the Mexican border, the spread of Ebola and IS, and tensions with Russia.

“It was what I call a fear and loathing election,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington.

“It could be that one of the results of that was for the president to look more decisive, more managerial with respect to the capabilities of the defence department. And for that, the secretary had to go.”

A veteran who still carries shrapnel from his time as an army sergeant in Vietnam, Mr Hagel (68) was the first enlisted soldier to serve as secretary for defence. He got the job despite an unconvincing performance at a Senate confirmation hearing in January 2013, where his past policy positions was berated by a fellow Republican, John McCain.

A critic of Mr Obama’s foreign policy, Mr McCain will as chairman of the Senate armed services committee play a pivotal role in deciding whether the president chooses a suitable replacement.

Mr Hagel will remain on until his successor is approved by Congress. Names linked to the job include Michèle Flournoy, a former under-secretary for policy from 2009 to 2012; and Ashton Carter, who was No 2 at the Pentagon from 2011 to 2013.