Much of official Washington was surprised when news broke Monday that Chuck Hagel was out as Defense secretary. They shouldn't have been. For both personal and systemic reasons, Hagel's tenure was always destined to be as troubled as it was short.
On the personal level, Hagel never really recovered from his disastrous confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January last year. Among the words commonly used to describe Hagel's performance then were stumbling, confused, labored, incoherent, and embarrassing. He struggled to explain past statements he had made on Israel, Iran, Iraq, and climate change. He had been appointed, in part, because former senators traditionally face easy confirmation hearings and the White House had little stomach for such a battle. Additionally, President Obama hoped putting a Republican in the key post would reach out to the GOP. But, after all his bumbling, only four Republican senators voted for Hagel when he was confirmed by a 58-41 vote.
Even during his two terms representing Nebraska in the Senate, Hagel was never really a member of the club. He only occasionally toed the GOP line, often strayed from party orthodoxy, and reveled in being called a maverick. His one close friend and fellow Vietnam vet, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, ended up at odds with him, their friendship wrecked by deep differences over Iraq and Hagel's failure to support his presidential candidacy in 2008. The confirmation was payback time and McCain seemed to delight in using the contentious hearings to eviscerate his former buddy, the colleague he used to call "sergeant."
Those hearings hurt Hagel's standing at the White House, and he never found his footing when he reached the Pentagon. In part, that was because the issue terrain shifted. A champion of the president's pivot to Asia and plans to downsize the military, Hagel spent much of his time working on Asian and Pacific policies and laboring on the budget. That left the former Army infantryman AWOL in the Middle East and Europe, with Secretary of State John Kerry filling the void. Also, Hagel, a longtime foe of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thought his job was to end those wars. He seemed ill-suited when the mission shifted to battling Islamic extremists after they emerged as a real military threat in Syria and Iraq.
And Hagel encountered difficulties when he made statements, particularly on Syria and the battle against the Islamic extremists, that irritated a White House unable to rein him in. That's where Hagel's troubles crossed from the personal to the systemic, from the fallout from his quirky personality to the consequences of the way this White House wants to operate.
For the White House's problems dealing with the Pentagon cannot be blamed solely on this Defense secretary. There is, after all, a six-year history of those problems, spanning the tenures of three different secretaries. Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Hagel are very different people with very different histories—a career bureaucrat, a longtime member of Congress who also served in prior administrations, and a former senator. But each had the same complaint about the Obama White House: Too much micromanaging.
Only last week, Gates, a Republican, and Panetta, a Democrat, aired that complaint, which both earlier had included in their memoirs. "It was micromanaging that drove me crazy," Gates said at a joint appearance with Panetta at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Panetta cast this excess of micromanagement as the culmination of a three-decade trend. "For the past 25 to 30 years," he said, "there has been a centralization of power in the White House. Because of that centralization of authority at the White House, there are too few voices that are being heard."
Gates, who served in both Bush administrations, placed more of the blame on the current White House, though. He contended that once the two President Bushes made their policy decisions, there was "no micromanagement." According to reports in Military.com and other publications, Gates said the current White House control goes much deeper than the large strategic questions. "My concern in terms of this relationship of the White House and the military is not on the big issues," he said. "It's in the increasing desire of the White House to control and manage every aspect of military affairs."
Obama aides were angered that both Gates and Panetta used their books to criticize the White House. To them, the books were disloyal and the critiques should have been held until the president is out of office. Now, they no doubt will stress Hagel's personal quirks and failings for his unhappy and short tenure. But as the president begins his search for his fourth Pentagon chief, he cannot escape questions about why he allows his aides to micromanage defense policy.
There is, though, one positive in Hagel's forced departure. It was only a year ago, at the time of the botched rollout of the health care website, that critics were saying the president is a bad manager because he is reluctant to fire anybody. With Hagel's exit, Obama has shown that he is willing to do that. Answering the question about micromanaging will be tougher to do.