Chuck Hagel has, ah, “resigned” as Secretary of Defense, because somebody has to take the blame for, well, the election results I guess (full confession: I respect Hagel’s stance on cutting the military budget and his skepticism for American military adventures abroad). If we’re going by substance, it’s not clear why Hagel had to go. Was it because of the American response to ISIS? I don’t mean to be a stick in the OMG ISIS IS GOING TO DESTROY US ALL mud, but if you haven’t noticed lately, ISIS is losing in Iraq. Is Hagel out because our Syria policy is a mess? Because Hagel’s been pushing for clarification on our Syria policy for a few weeks now, and if you’re firing people over Syria then you should probably start with 3/4 of the White House national security team including the President, plus reality for presenting America with a set of lousy options there. Ukraine is still a nightmare, and the Taliban is winning again in Afghanistan, but it’s hard to figure how Hagel is to blame for either, given that we’ve never even hinted at military force in Ukraine and that Afghanistan’s problems are as much internal as anything to do with U.S. policy there.
No, Hagel is going for two reasons: one, somebody in the administration had to fall on his or her sword after the midterm elections and two, Hagel was pretty bad at the bureaucratic aspects of his job. He’s been inarticulate at best and contradictory at worst in his communications with the media, the top ranks of the military didn’t like him, and while he hasn’t been the biggest reason for Barack Obama’s meandering, at times directionless-seeming foreign policy (which is a question of style over substance, for the most part, but style does matter when it comes to politics), he hasn’t exactly been part of the solution either. The thing is, though, that the White House team that mostly has been the biggest reason for that meandering foreign policy is apparently staying in place. That may have contributed to Hagel’s removal as well, as Steven Clemons says that Hagel had “substantial frustration” with the White House foreign policy operation. It’s possible that Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice just couldn’t work together anymore, and Hagel wasn’t enough of a bureaucratic in-fighter to make his case to Obama.
So Hagel is out, but I don’t think you’ll notice very much. One thing this move does is it opens up the possibility that a Democratic president might, and please sit down before you read the next part because it’s shocking and radical, appoint an actual Democrat to run the Pentagon. The fascination that Bill Clinton and now Obama have had with Republican Secretaries of Defense is, as Waldman notes in that piece, both understandable and terrible for the Democratic Party’s public image on national security. The problem for those of us who don’t think American military might has accomplished very much in recent years is that, despite the potential party change, any Democrat that Obama might appoint to the office (the betting favorite is Michèle Flournoy, who would mark another welcome milestone as the first female Secretary of Defense) is likely to be a bigger hawk than Hagel was.